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125 winning combinations

Coke’s latest fountain lures customers to restaurants

Kelly’s Roast Beef has the Coca-Cola Freestyle. Kelly’s Roast Beef has the Coca-Cola Freestyle. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
By Taryn Luna
Globe Correspondent / June 15, 2011

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The main attraction for a busload of Dover fifth-graders was supposed to be the Museum of Fine Arts, but that all changed when they stopped by Kelly’s Roast Beef and got a glimpse of their soda-drinking future.

At the entrance of Kelly’s sat a sleek Coca-Cola Freestyle fountain crafted to resemble an old-fashioned vending machine, but with a twist: a touchscreen computer embedded in the machine gives customers the option of 125 flavors. You can quench your thirst with a Coke or a Sprite, or try something more exotic — Sprite with Grape or a Hi-C Orange Vanilla.

“It was cool because you press a button. and it goes ‘beep,’ and you get it,’’ said 10-year-old Georgia Stoney as she sipped her Minute Made Strawberry Lemonade last week.

Freestyle, Coca-Cola’s newest innovation, arrived at Kelly’s Roast Beef in Saugus last month and is among 17 Freestyle machines that are being tested in Massachusetts. Kelly’s has one more at its Danvers location, while the rest are at local Wendy’s, the fast food chain.

Joe Pawlak, an analyst with Technomic, a restaurant consulting and research firm in Chicago, said the Freestyle fountains are not only increasing beverage sales, but restaurants that install the machines are seeing food sales increase, as well.

“It’s driving people to come into the restaurants that have them, and more frequently,’’ he said. “It’s been kind of a big winner so far.’’

The Freestyle is Coca-Cola Co.’s response to consumers’ desire for a greater variety of products. The fountain offers 20 regular, low-calorie, and diet options of soda, ranging from traditional Coca-Cola to PowerAde and Seagram’s Seltzer Water. After selecting a soda on the touch screen, the customer is then provided with a variety of flavors, including fruit punch, grape, lemon, lime, orange, raspberry, cherry, strawberry, and vanilla.

“There’s a computer in each machine that knows the ingredients for all 125 brands,’’ said Jim Sanders, group director of commercialization for Coca-Cola Freestyle, Coca-Cola Refreshments. “With that computer on board we know exactly what is poured at exactly what time of day.’’

Data on the combinations of flavors users select at the fountain are sent wirelessly to Coca-Cola’s headquarters in Atlanta, enabling the company to determine what flavors customers are gravitating toward for product development. The company said Dasani Sensations, sparkling water with optional flavor add-ins, and Minute Maid Light Lemonades have been unexpectedly popular.

The computer also tells the restaurant what ingredients need to be restocked. Sanders said Coca-Cola is working with Wendy’s to test a Freestyle machine that automatically orders ingredients as they run out.

Wendy’s and Kelly’s say the flavor variety the machine offers is the greatest benefit to customers. The machine uses an innovative system of cartridges that dispenses flavors, sweeteners, and water, and pours from a single spout into the customer’s cup.

“We went from eight flavors previously to 125 in this machine,’’ said Kitty Munger, a Wendy’s spokeswoman. “There’s definitely a beverage for everyone.’’

Wendy’s began testing the machine in Atlanta in 2009 and has 121 units across the country.

Kelly’s in New England has yet to see an increase in food or beverage sales since the Freestyle units were installed, said Dean Murphy, the restaurant’s director of operations. But restaurant employees are observing several new trends.

“People have been coming in just to get soda because they hear about the machine,’’ said Joey DeLeary, manager of the Saugus location.

Freestyle seems to be a hit with younger customers, like the high school students who stopped by Kelly’s for a meal before prom and took pictures with the unit.

Some older customers are a little more resistant to the new technology, DeLeary said.

Gloria Terminello, an 87-year-old retired legal secretary, has frequented the Saugus location since it opened. She used the machine once a month ago and prefers the old system where restaurant employees fill drinks for customers.

“Little by little they are starting with that and who knows what they’ll think of next,’’ she said.

Wendy’s and Kelly’s are leasing Freestyle machines from Coke on a trial basis — neither has decided whether to keep the equipment.

But Coke sees Freestyle as part of its future and hopes to roll out the machines to cinemas, theme parks, stadiums, and restaurants in new markets around the country. Freestyle is in 600 stores and 50 markets.

“To us, it’s a wonderful innovation in an industry that doesn’t see a lot of innovative technology,’’ Sanders said.

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