I remember when the McDonald’s near my house began offering free soda refills. As a kid, it was a revelation! Unlimited soda with my Quarter Pounder with cheese.
Next, fast food chains began offering self-serve machines. So not only was I able to have unlimited soda, but I could get it myself without having to wait in line for the person behind the counter to refill it for me (and without the embarrassment of going up to the register three or four times to ask for more Diet Coke).
Now, there’s a new evolution in fast food and sodas: Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. Introduced in 2009, the Freestyle is a touchscreen machine that features up to 165 different Coca-Cola drink products and custom flavors. In addition to the widely available Coke and Sprite products, sodas such as Mello Yello, Barq’s creme soda, flavored Dasani water, and Powerade are offered, as well as flavored syrups to mix in, such as cherry, vanilla, and grape.
A regular self-serve fountain typically offers between six and 12 options. Multiply that by 14, and you’ve got the number of drink choices from a Freestyle Machine. Then, add the customizable mix-in flavors for even more options. The variations are mind-boggling!
More and more, both major and smaller fast food chains have started to offer these machines to customers. Burger King, Five Guys, Jack in the Box, Wendy’s, Firehouse Subs, and Moe’s Southwest Grill all feature Freestyle Machines at some or many of their locations. White Castle recently announced that the machines are now available at all of its locations.
“It’s definitely a good business driver,” said Mike Walsh, owner of seven Moe’s Southwest Grill restaurants in New York. “When we opened our two new stores everybody was mesmerized by it.”
I remember when fast food didn’t even offer you a free soda refill. My, how times have changed.
Nevin Barich is the Food & Beverage analyst for Industry Intelligence, a Los Angeles-based market intelligence firm. It's the perfect job for him: He loves junk food, he often works besides a glass of Diet Dr. Pepper, and anytime one of the health nuts in his office gives him grief for eating a Big Mac, he gets to smile and say: "Hey, this is my job." Email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.