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Machine of the Future

Coke's new machine.

We’ve been keeping our interns busy chasing stories around town. Elizabeth Johnstone, who has her bachelor’s degree at New York University, checked out Coca-Cola’s new fountain concept at a Wingstop in Garland. Check out her report after the jump, and then ask her about the time she chased down a purse snatcher.

Coke Freestyle

I wasn’t expecting pomp, or circumstance. But I was expecting at least a small crowd of ooh-ers and ahh-ers over Coca-Cola’s space age drink-dispensing machine. But at the Wingstop on Northwest Highway in Garland, where the first of Dallas’ Coca-Cola Freestyle interactive soda fountains has landed, all I saw were a few hungry customers snarfing down a late lunch.

I missed out on the free hot wings (and apparently the “event” part of the event), Gene Farrell, vice president of Coca-Cola Freestyle, told me. But did I want to play with the machine? Hmm. Is the Pope Catholic? Is it hot enough outside right now to fry an egg on the hood of my car?

I turned around, and there it was standing alone against the opposite wall— tall, slim, sleek, a soda junkie’s wildest fantasy. I couldn’t decide if it looked more like Texas-sized, Coca-Cola colored iPad or a fancy washing machine. The iPad comparison is more flattering—one of the fountain’s industrial designers is a refuge from Apple, and the other designers make Ferraris. If that’s not a pedigree, I don’t know what is.

This puppy has an ice dispenser, and…here’s where any comparison to the soda fountain you know comes to a syrupy sweet end. Customers choose their drink via an interactive touch screen of 106 options (the average fountain only has eight), and then push the big silver button that says PUSH. Duh, right? But I had trouble at first—I kept poking the icon on the screen until somebody took pity on me. Voila! Coke Orange, which is not available in stores, poured out. When I commented on the strong citrus smell, Farrell said proudly that all beverages and flavors come straight from concentrate for a perfect drink every time.

The Freestyle project began five years ago to solve a business problem—customers wanted more choices, but beverage companies were limited by current fountain technology. In testing, Farrell says he and his team learned exactly what America wanted from a soda dispenser: the ability to pour one’s own drink and the ability to pour a drink that tastes good (thus, there’s no option to fool with the strength of the syrup), and finally, the weirdly specific number of 106 different flavors.

And of course, with all this focus on personalization, mixing and matching is encouraged. Jim Sanders, the group director of commercialization, kindly directed my attention to the Creamsicle: a delightful mélange of Orange and Vanilla Coke. Yikes.

But is the Freestyle, with its many, many beverages (Powerade! vitaminwater! Caffeine Free Diet Coke!) and seemingly endless combinations (Sprite Zero with Strawberry + Grape Vault—it’s like drinking fruit salad) poised to replace Ye Olde Soda Fountain? Farrell, who has worked on the project since its inception, says that he doubts it—even as Coca-Cola plans to expand the machine into 80 new markets by next year.

“I view this like I view the iPhone,” Farrell said. “Will the iPhone eventually replace regular phones? Probably not. But certainly it [the Freestyle] will become the leading edge of the market.”

As I’m taking my leave, a pretty, blond mother of two just finished pouring herself a club soda—an option that isn’t usually available in fast food chains.

“This is the coolest thing I’ve seen all week,” she said. She returned to her table and plunked a straw in her cup. No muss, no fuss, no fanfare.

I asked her husband if he was planning on trying any of the more adventurous flavors. Creamsicle, perhaps?

“I ain’t afraid,” he said. And then he took a sip of his plain, old-fashioned water.

So many options.
The machine in action.

3 comments on “Machine of the Future

  1. It was the giant button that said push….

    sigh, do people just not read entire clauses anymore?

    “and then push the big silver button that says PUSH.”