published Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Taco Mac downtown tests Coca-Cola in 125 flavors

Dan Redler, sr. customer marketing manager for Coca-Cola, talks about a new soft drink machine Tuesday at Taco Mac. The machine can mix custom blends of soft drinks and flavors.
Dan Redler, sr. customer marketing manager for Coca-Cola, talks about a new soft drink machine Tuesday at Taco Mac. The machine can mix custom blends of soft drinks and flavors.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

CHOICES

What are the basic flavors available with the Freestyle?

* Coca-Cola

* Diet Coke

* Coca-Cola Zero

* Caffeine-Free Diet Coke

* Sprite

* Sprite Zero

* Vault

* Barq’s

* Pibb

* Dasani

* Dasani Sensations

* Fanta

* Fanta Zero

* Hi-C

* Minute Maid

* Powerade

* Powerade Zero

* Seagram’s

Source: Coca-Cola


COMBOS

What unique (and officially sanctioned) flavors can be created with Freestyle?

* Raspberry Coke

* Coke with lemon

* Caffeine-Free Diet Cherry Vanilla Coke

* Dasani with strawberry

* Orange Sprite Zero

* Vanilla Barq’s root beer

* Seagram’s lemon lime seltzer

* Minute Maid light orange lemonade

* Fanta Zero fruit punch

Source: Coca-Cola


HOW MUCH?

A soft drink at Taco Mac is $2.39 with free refills

The dispenser pours a tall glass of Peach Sprite, pausing to let the bubbles recede before topping it off — taking care not to let the drink overflow. Customers don’t appreciate a sticky glass.

Dan Redler, Coca-Cola senior customer marketing manager, looks on with his arms crossed as the machine autonomously dispenses the fizzy peach drink.

“See, a perfect pour,” he tells the half-dozen onlookers who have crowded into a corridor in the Taco Mac kitchen.

It’s the first of Coke’s new Freestyle soft-drink dispensers unveiled in Chattanooga, and it’s a revolutionary leap from the current lever-operated generation.

Taco Mac customers accustomed to six soft drink options now have 125 choices, including varieties not widely available in the U.S. market such as Raspberry Coke or Peach Sprite Zero. Though some of the more culturally distinct drinks such as Japan’s Sokenbicha tea or Indian Maaza, a juice drink, won’t be on the menu.

It’s essentially the final, thirst-quenching sampling portion of Atlanta’s World of Coca-Cola museum, condensed into a touchscreen device the size of a refrigerator. Coke has rolled out several hundred of the devices for tests across the country.

The Freestyle is unique, not just because of its automatic, single-nozzle operation and touchscreen interface, but for its ability to communicate.

When company chemists invent a concoction, the machine can “call home” and automatically integrate the new recipe into its existing lineup, Redler said. It also sends statistics to restaurant owner and Coke HQ for analysis.

Bruce Skala, vice president of marketing for Tappan Street Restaurant Group, which owns Taco Mac, said he’s already seen a “large incremental sales volume increase” in soft drink orders since he installed the machine.

“People are asking for less water, which is great for us because water is not a revenue generating beverage,” he said.

Jeri Liner, who sat down for lunch Tuesday with three friends, said she’d forgo ordering water with so many soft drink on hands.

“I don’t drink carbonated beverages, so this way I can have options besides water or Coke,” she said.

It’s a great fit for the chain, because it complements Taco Mac’s 250 beer options, he said.

“We’re already looking at a loyalty program similar to Brewniversity,” he said of the chain’s program that rewards customers for trying each of the restaurant’s beer offerings.

Customer interaction with Taco Mac’s new Freestyle will be limited, as the machine is crew-serve only.

But new self-serve machines built for ordinary consumers are slated to start showing up locally within one to two months at franchises such as Moe’s Southwest Grill, Redler said.

Coca-Cola is still trying to figure out how to better integrate the Freestyle into drive-through restaurants, he added. But Coke has been held up on the question of “how to communicate 125 brands to a guest in a drive-through.”

Those and other questions may be answered as the Freestyle evolves, he said.

Only restaurants determined to be “a good fit” are eligible to rent one of the dispensers.

“There’s so much technology, so many unique patents, and each machine has to go through a lot of testing,” he said. “This is like going to the bottling plant to get a drink.”

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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