We have seen it, the promised land. The soda dispenser of the future. A machine so sleek it should be in a technology museum and so smart it can dispense more sodas than you can imagine. If you haven't tasted Peach Mello Yello or Raspberry Coke Zero, have you truly lived?
We don't normally go gaga over food-service machinery (especially when it's designed by a multinational global conglomerate peddling a product we rarely consume), but when we first spotted the Coca-Cola Freestyle with its sexy contours and previously unsipped sodas at recently opened Westwood pizzeria 800 Degrees, it blew our mind. (It also made us feel like a 45-year-old suburban dad who just discovering texting.)
The soda machine of the future is, technically, the soda machine of the past. Coca-Cola started rolling it out in 2008, installing the first one at Willy's Mexicana Grill in Atlanta. Freestyle dispensers didn't hit Los Angeles until 2010, when they popped up at the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe in Malibu, Fatburger in West Hollywood and All About the Bread. There are now more than 100 Southern California locations and 2,000-plus locations around the country with the machine. (Soda devotees can find them via the Facebook locator tab and an iPhone app.)
What's so special about the Coca-Cola Freestyle? It looks light-years better than any other soda dispenser we've ever seen. It's sexy, contoured and silver, though there are also versions in red and in black. If it looks like the sports car of soda machines, that's because Coca-Cola collaborated with Italian car design firm Pininfarina, which is known for, among other things, the Ferrari P4/5. For the user interface, a full-color touchpad, Coca-Cola brought in consultants who had worked on early designs of the iPod UI.
Then there's the soda. A typical soda machine can dispense six to 12 types of soda. With new flavors being added, the latest version of the self-serve Freestyle can dispense more than150.
When Coca-Cola first launched Operation: Build a Better Soda Dispenser (not its real name) in 2005, it thought it would be keen to let people create whatever sodas they wanted. You want three shots of vanilla? A double dose of orange syrup in your cola? You got it. The idea was a flop. People made terrible sodas. There was also tons of waste.
Instead, the company decided to build a cartridge-based soda dispenser. The basic process works the same as a desktop printer, but instead of ink the cartridges are filled with ultra-concentrated flavoring agents. All of the cartridges, which last 75-120 days, live inside the machine except for high-fructose corn syrup, which is piped in from a larger vat.
Coca-Cola brought in Dean Kamen, known to most people as the Segway inventor but known to scientists for devising a system for microdosing prescription drugs. He applied that technology to soda pop, and voila: a soda machine with hundreds of options, including regional flavors and sodas not sold in cans or on store shelves. The Freestyle dispenser at 800 Degrees boasts six flavors of Coke Zero, four types of Mello Yello (peach, raspberry, grape and cherry) and all sorts of variations on Fanta, Pibb and Sprite.
The upshot? People drink a lot more root beer than previously assumed.