At Westerly McDonald's, it's hold the napkins

There are many more important things in the world to worry about than the availability of paper napkins at fast-food restaurants.

And take this as fair warning: Now is a good time to move on to all those other important things, which you can read about elsewhere in this publication, if you are not interested in napkin availability.

But if you worry about things like polite civility in our increasingly harsh culture, hang in.

OK, maybe making customers ask for more napkins is not the end of our civilized world. But it could be the top of a slippery slope, a trip on which you might want some extra napkins.

I am generally not a big fan of McDonald's restaurants, but I will admit to a weakness for their $1 dark roast coffees, especially the iced coffee in the summer.

I first encountered a napkin-challenged McDonald's in Massachusetts. The usual napkin container on the counter near the drinks fountain was missing, and when I inquired at the counter they explained you have to ask for extra napkins.

I wondered if this was a fast-food trend. But I found the napkin dispensers reassuringly in place at other McDonald's in Massachusetts and Connecticut and at other fast-food restaurants.

I even did some Google searching on the topic and came up mostly with a slew of national news stories about someone in California who sued McDonald's for $1.5 million, for the "undue mental anguish" in being given only one napkin with a messy sandwich.

The suing customer, who is black, also claimed racial discrimination because the restaurant manager mentioned "you people" when first responding in the restaurant to the lack-of-napkins complaint.

I gathered from the news stories about the napkin incident in California that it is up to individual McDonald's franchise owners how they establish napkin policy.

I didn't come across another napkin-restricted McDonald's until this spring, when I stopped at the one near Dunn's Corners on Route 1 in Westerly.

There was no dispenser. A woman behind the counter told me she fields lots of customer complaints about restricting napkin access. She gave me the number of the management company to answer questions.

The woman who called me back after I left a message on the number the counter employee gave me, a Stonington exchange, was brusque and rude and would not tell me her name or the name of the company. She said the napkin restriction at the Dunn's Corners McDonald's was the result of "policy."

I saw in land records that the Route 1 site is owned by McDonald's Corp., but I gave up on getting a corporation explanation of napkin policy after leaving messages on nearly a dozen corporate public relations phone listings.

Not long after, I discovered a no napkins dispenser policy at the Granite Street McDonald's in Westerly, closer to downtown, which an employee there said is run by the same people who manage Dunn's Corners.

No one called back when I left the message for a manager.

Some of the things I might have asked, if I had a chance, was what happens if your hands or your kids' hands are dirty from eating a big greasy sandwich, and there is a line at the counter? Is it polite to cut the line to ask for a napkin?

Isn't that a waste of employee time, to wait on a customer a second time?

If napkins are restricted, what's next? Permission slips for the rest rooms? Restricting toilet paper access? Does cutting down on napkin availability save that much money? Are you worried people are using too many?

I might not mind the restaurant saving money on napkins if I thought it was because they were going to use the money to pay workers more than minimum wage. But I doubt that.

Maybe that customer who is suing McDonald's is on to something. Even if that incident wasn't racism, the practice in general does seem like drawing a line in an increasingly polarized culture. Soon when we talk about the have-nots it could mean napkins, the people who can only afford to eat out at fast-food joints and not properly wipe their hands.

Anyway, time to move on to all those other important things in the paper today.

I am hoping a few people, though, might join me in stepping on the accelerator next time you pass McDonald's in Westerly.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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