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August 2004
By Janice Cha
SPECIAL REPORT: Fizz Factories

New bells and whistles—including multibrand nozzles and flavor boosters—jump fountain beverage dispensers from commodity to cool.

Used to be that the best way to add fun flavors to fountain beverages was to use costly (and messy) syrup-filled pump bottles, or maybe to encourage the ol’ Suicide Drink, where you fill your cup with equal shots from each nozzle.

Now manufacturers of post-mix countertop fountain beverage dispensers are building the pizzazz right into the fizz biz. New and upcoming machines jazz up the customer side with customizable drinks, multiple brand choices per nozzle and colorful displays. Behind the scenes, the updated units cool beverages more efficiently, carbonate better and make switching from carbonated to noncarbonated all the easier.

“So what?” you say. It’s the syrup companies that supply your restaurants with leased beverage dispensers, so you’re never really in the market for new units.

Au contraire. Think about this: Carbonated soft drinks drive the largest share of the U.S. beverage business, holding a steady 28% of the market from 1997 to 2002, according to Beverage Marketing Corp. Of that, fountain drinks command about one-fifth of carbonated soft-drink sales. Which means that tracking new developments and understanding how these simple-yet-complicated machines work can please both customers and your bottom line.

Dosing And Blending And Branding, Oh My!
The name of the game is offering more flavor choices—more excitement, more fun and therefore more profit—in the same counter space or even less. Manufacturers give you new types of equipment with two options: adding bonus flavors—such as vanilla, cherry and lemon—through blending or dosing buttons, and increasing the number of brands per nozzle.

Bonus flavors can be delivered in two ways: blending or dosing. With blending, the extra flavor flows in a preset ratio as the drink is dispensed. You put ice in the cup, push a button for the extra flavor, then push the button to dispense the main drink. The blending function is integral to the dispenser, built in as part of the internal valve system. The benefits: First, blending gives you, the operator, better control of syrup costs because no double or triple shots of syrup are possible. The fixed ratio also yields consistent results from pour to pour, and tends to be faster because customers or crew members take only one extra step to create their beverage.

Or if you go with dosing instead, you get different ways to customize beverages: You (or your customer) can add the bonus flavor (or flavors) before or after the beverage is poured. You can hit the dosing button one or more times. The dosing buttons are separate from the valve system, and can be retrofitted on certain types of machines. Dosing gives the same “brand excitement” (as the marketing folks call it) as blending. In a crew-serve setting, the dosing dispenser lets operators expand beverage menus and still control costs. In a customer-serve setting, operators will tend to see variable cost points and potentially longer queue times.

Be it dosing or blending, the bonus flavor syrups flow from half-size bag-in-box containers stowed on the same shelves as the major brands. The ambient lines run directly to the machine rather than through the cold plate.

Manufacturers tell us that they’ve a number of chain restaurants testing the new technology. One fast-casual chain, though, is fully committed: Camille’s Sidewalk Café. This 62-unit chain headquartered in Tulsa, Okla., has been recommending bonus flavor-enhanced beverage dispensers to all its operators for the past year. The reason, says Michael McCracken, franchise services v.p. and the first franchisee to test the power of the flavor booster dispensers, lies in the numbers.

“A typical Camille’s uses 800 gals. of soft drink syrup in 12 months. At our unit in Peoria, Ill., we sold more than 1,100 gals. within five and half months of opening,” McCracken says.

About 50% of new Camille’s stores are installing the flavor-booster dispensers. The fast-growing company expects to open 75 stores in 2005, and has agreements signed for 600 store openings over the next five years. “I’d like to get them all to use the dispensers because I feel so strongly about the program,” McCracken asserts.

The new dispensers do require some customer education—despite three-step directions printed in large, friendly letters on machine fronts. McCracken recommends posting an employee next to the machine for the first few weeks to help guests navigate new waters (so to speak) and prevent

And sampling is encouraged. “We give people 3-oz. sample cups and invite them to try a cream soda, or a lemon cola,” McCracken says. Then, presumably, they come back and buy a full cup.

More Brands, Same Counter Space
The second way to offer more variety in the same or less space is through machines that pack in more choices per nozzle—two, three or four brands, both carbonated and noncarbonated, to be specific

This means your dispenser could offer up to 16 brands (not including flavor boosters) from four heads, and occupy about 30” of countertop—15” less than a traditional model.

Clever design keeps flavor-carryover in the shared nozzles to a minimum. Lancer’s dispenser, for example, blends the syrup with soda water about an inch below the nozzle—in mid-air—to prevent flavor overlap. Cornelius, on the other hand, solves the issue by having the soda- or plain-water stream run a bit longer than the syrup, to rinse any remaining flavor residue.

Apart from the flavor tricks, beverage dispenser “innards” are getting an upgrade as well, especially in carbonation.

Fizz Happens
In a conventional setup, the blending of CO2 gas with water is typically done at room temperature, in the back room near the BIB containers, pumps and tanks. The thing is, water at room temps doesn’t absorb as much CO2 as water at colder temps. Which means that water carbonated at ambient temperatures is a lot less fizzy than it could be.

One manufacturer, Lancer Corp., addresses this by building a carbonator straight into the dispenser’s cold plate. (See sidebar on this page for a cold plate discussion.) The company says benefits of this built-in arrangement include fizzier water, lower installation costs and fewer service calls. Other companies situate the carbonator within the ice bin, but not inside the cold plate.

And A Word About Service
Beverage dispenser bells and whistles are a good thing—as long as you have a knowledgeable service tech in the area who’s able to fix them. Russ Prickett, president of the Int’l. Beverage Dispenser Equipment Association, recommends that you make sure your service personnel are familiar with the workings of electronics-dependent machines, or that the manufacturer or dealer can provide a service agreement.


A Peek Inside: Ice-Cooled Vs. Compressor-Cooled
These days most post-mix beverage dispensers fall into two main camps as far as cooling’s concerned: ice cooled or compressor cooled, which includes countertop dispensers and the recirculation systems.

(Recirc setups, favored by high-volume, multi-outlet operations, can supply multiple locations with a nonstop stream of chilled beverages. Since the equipment must be customized for each installation, and because a relatively small percentage of folks use them, they aren’t addressed in this story.)

Back to the two key types. As the name says, ice-cooled systems make the ice do double duty—first to chill soda water and syrup, and second to chill customers’ beverages. The workhorse of the ice-cooled dispenser is the cold plate, a block of cast aluminum sitting in the ice bin. Serpentine tubes inside the cold plate chill the carbonated water and syrups.

Cold plate chillers tend to be less expensive, as they only involve the carbonator, cold plate and mixing valves, and they require fewer service calls. On the other hand, the setup requires a constant supply of ice to cover the cold plate.

Compressor-cooled dispensers (a.k.a. countertop electric dispensers or CEDs) build an ice bank around an evaporator submersed in a water bath. The ice bank chills serpentine tubes carrying the water and syrups. As drinks are dispensed, the ice bank is used up and cooling power decreases. Since recovery time depends on compressor size, so does peak demand capacity. (By contrast, ice-cooled units can be manually filled with ice, removing peak demand limits.)

CED operating costs tend to be lower than with cold plate systems, and you get slightly better carbonation because you’re mixing the gas into cold water. But because it’s a more complicated system, compressor maintenance will cost more over time.

When It Comes To Ice, Size Does Matter
When it comes to getting the right size of beverage dispenser for your business, you have to look beyond the brand and flavor valve count and into some icy depths. Here are a few points that your local representative can help you ponder:

First, look at how the ice gets to the dispenser. If it’s a manual-fill model, make sure the bin holds enough for service at peak times, since neither you nor your crew will want to be manually filling the bin during the rush hour. And if you have an attached or stand-alone icemaker, you’ll need to measure its production capacity vs. peak time requirements. You should also think about the noise factor—can the icemaker’s condensing unit be remotely located?

Next, look at the machine’s capacity ratings at realistic operating temperatures. The higher the incoming water and the ambient air temperatures, the lower the ice production.

Then consider the machine’s beverage cooling style. Integral cold plates are the most common means of chilling the beverage before it hits the customer’s cup. They are simple, nonmechanical and relatively inexpensive, but they use ice to do the job, decreasing your dispensable ice capacity. A rule of thumb is that for every pound of ice dispensed into cups, a pound of ice will “burn off” on the cold plate.

Finally, it pays to look at your competition’s setup. Michael McCracken of Camille’s Sidewalk Café learned that the hard way. When the store in Peoria, Ill., opened, the flavored beverages proved almost too popular for the attached 500-lb. ice machine. “We really used the machine hard,” he says. Only later did they learn that their competitors relied on 1,300-lb. icemakers.

Ice Bites
Who chews ice? According to an informal survey commissioned by ice machine and drink dispenser maker Follett Corp., nearly half the customers who buy soft drinks from dispensers fall into the ice-chomping category.

Research firm Roper ASW surveyed roughly 350 customers at two 7-Eleven stores in Austin, Texas, and two McDonald's restaurants in Columbus, Ohio, about their tastes in beverage ice. Researchers discovered that approximately 40% admitted to chewing ice. Further questioning revealed that ice biters preferred nuggets (made of compressed ice) to cubes, thanks to the better “chewability,” appearance and slower drink dilution time.

“We’ve never been able to quantify sales increases driven by this preference,” says Lois Schneck, marketing director for the Easton, Pa., manufacturer. “But nearly a quarter of the people interviewed said they would drive out of their way for chewable ice.” Not surprisingly, Follett ice machines specialize in making the crunchable ice, called “Chewblets.”


Carb To Noncarb: Presto-Change-O!
Time was that changing a fountain head from carbonated to noncarbonated to meet changing customer tastes required a service call. Now Follett Corp. lets you switch from carb to noncarb as soon as your BIB container empties, thanks to QuickCarb technology. The machine’s four center valves are preplumbed to accept both carbonated and plain water lines. You can change each valve individually from a carbonated to a noncarbonated flavor just by flipping a switch located behind the splash panel.

The QuickCarb valves are a standard feature on Follett’s new low-profile Vision ice and beverage dispensers. The low profile results from “hiding” the ice storage bin under the counter or even in a back room, while the icemaker resides anywhere within 20 ft. of the dispenser. The bins can be automatically or manually refilled—a plus during peak times when your icemaker may or may not be able to keep up with demand. Vision beverage centers come in eight-, 10- or 20-valve configurations, and with 150- or 300-lb. ice capacities.

Flavor Select
Here’s an integrated flavor-blending dispenser: Lancer Corp.’s Flavor Select gives you eight to 16 brand positions plus up to 12 bonus flavors in more than a hundred possible flavor combinations—all in a 30” footprint. For eye-catching display, the backlit buttons flash a constant mini light show.

Flavor Select is field configurable, so you can upgrade the number of brands and/or carbonation options just by opening the machine’s front. Air Mix dispense modules prevent flavor carryover in the multibrand nozzles by blending syrup and water in midair.

Lancer is the first to market with the bonus flavor beverage dispensers. The San Antonio manufacturer launched Flavor Select at the October 2002 National Association of Convenience Stores Show, entered beta testing in February ’03, and went into full production in June ’03.

About 10 major restaurant chains are testing Flavor Select dispensers, but as of this writing, only Camille’s Sidewalk Café has officially embraced them. By year’s end, c-stores such as 7-Eleven, Circle K and Diamond Shamrock will begin rolling them out. More to the point, syrup suppliers are starting to lean toward equipment that’s bonus-flavor-capable, says Lancer’s Greg Montgomery, marketing and business development v.p.

IMI Cornelius
It’d be hard to miss Cornelius’ latest entry in the beverage dispenser field. The Flavor-Fusion prototypes, which blend (rather than dose—see main story) bonus flavors, practically vibrate in their neon yellow or orange cladding. The units, now being field tested in Illinois and Texas, will be commercially available in January 2005 in a range of colors.

FlavorFusion’s slim 30”-wide footprint is roomy enough to field eight to 16 pushbutton valves, served from four nozzles. Two additional nozzles each dispense two to four different flavor shots. The doser nozzles can be programmed two ways: as a preset dose amount or with push-and-hold option. You can also set a wait interval of up to two seconds between doses, to slow the over-enthusiastic flavorer.

Each brand position can accommodate carbonated or noncarbonated pours. The machine stores 255 lbs. of dispensable ice.

The FlavorBlast, another Cornelius option, is a doser. You can get it integrated into new Enduro Ice Drink Dispensers, or you can retrofit it onto an existing one. You can adjust the FlavorBlast dispense option by time and flow rate to tailor its use to customer or operator needs. Flow control uses positive shutoff that stops dripping at the valve.

This fountain beverage solution is ideal for smaller-scale operators, or for when you need to offer carbonated soft drinks at special events. SerVend’s new QSV unit is a portable, self-contained unit with six low-profile nozzle positions and a built-in 55-lb. ice bin. Below decks, the cabinet holds everything you need to serve drinks, including six 21⁄2 - or 3- gal. BIB packages, integrated carbonation system, pumps and CO2 regulator. The cabinet also comes with a flex manifold that allows you to easily switch from carbonated to noncarbonated beverages. Locking casters make for better mobility. The system operates on one water line, one drain and one electrical outlet.

Also new from SerVend, as of May, is a countertop tower dispenser. The compact equipment permits you to add fountain beverages to limited spaces. Features include a drop-in dispenser design using common parts; a “no-tools-needed” drain pan and splash panel, quickly removed for installation and service; and a lighted merchandiser.



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