The next step in the evolution of the soda fountain is here, and it brings with it a computer.
The Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, with its 100-plus choices of Coca-Cola brand beverages, has been bubbling up business for restaurants nationally, including Firehouse Subs and Moe's Southwest Grill in Lexington.
Firehouse Subs, on South Upper Street near the University of Kentucky campus, replaced its traditional soda fountain with the machine on June 30, and "people are just really excited about it," said franchisee owner Bob Conochalla.
Customers approach the machine and use a touch-screen to select the type of drink they want and then they can select from a number of flavors to mix in. They also can mix and match. Think you would like a raspberry Coca-Cola? Try it. Or how about Coke Zero with lemon? Easy enough.
Lexington radio personality Chris Cross, who broadcasts his show from the restaurant every other week, says his favorite is orange Vault.
"It gives me a little jolt before I go on the air," he said of his afternoon Sports Huddle show with partners Mike Cameron and Matthew Laurance on ESPN Sports Radio 1300 AM. "It seems like there's an infinite number of things you can do."
That level of choice presents the machine's sole drawback: Some days, "people will take a little longer because they have to think about it," said Conochalla, whose favorite drink is Sprite Zero with peach.
But it all depends on the day, he said.
"If we have steady business, it's not a problem," he said. "Where we run into a problem is if a team walks in the door with 30 people.
"But the same thing happened with the old machine."
And the benefits are immense, he said.
"I had a customer come in and say this is one of those life-changing experiences," Conochalla said.
Sales have increased, as have sales at other Firehouse Subs where the machine was tested. The results were so positive that the chain announced recently it would install Coca-Cola Freestyle in all its stores nationwide.
"It's so unique that people want to come in and try it," Conochalla said. "And once they do, they do come back."
The machines debuted in 2009 and are now used in 1,359 locations, with some having multiple Freestyles, said Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling.
She said the beverage company's research showed half of all drinks selected in the machines weren't available with older equipment. The same research suggested that two-thirds of users say it influences their choices of restaurants. And for those restaurants with the machines, it's been a boon, she said.
"Restaurants see a double-digit increase in the percentage of beverage purchases," she said.
But as Conochalla noted, the boon might be temporary.
"It's almost a marketing tool until Coke sells it to everyone else," he said.
Reach Scott Sloan at (859) 231-1447 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1447.