The Ferrari of Corn Syrup
A Soda Fountain Innovation to Make Michelle Obama Weep
More journalists than you'd find at a murder scene are packed into the Taco Time on Elliott Avenue. Several TV cameras jostle for space with bloggers taking shaky video on their camera phones. A bossy TV reporter from KING 5 barks orders at her cameraman. A dejected-looking writer from Seattle Metropolitan magazine wanders around looking for someone to interview. A photojournalist from the Seattle Times runs back and forth taking snapshots of people, the back of his T-shirt proudly proclaiming his paper the "2010 PULITZER PRIZE WINNER BREAKING NEWS REPORTING."
Across town at City Hall, Mayor McGinn is holding a brown-bag lunch press conference in which any reporter from any media outlet can ask the mayor any question—about the tunnel, about Nickelsville, about police brutality or education reform. Five reporters are there. The dozens of reporters at Taco Time are covering the Pacific Northwest's first Coca-Cola Freestyle® soda machine. A squadron of PR people—some local, others airlifted in from Coca-Cola headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia—hand out Freestyle®-branded zip drives packed with information about the new machines. The press release encoded on the drives begins, dryly, "Coca-Cola Freestyle® is the brand name for a new fountain from the Coca-Cola Company that uses PurePour™ microdosing technology to dispense 106 sparkling and still beverage brands from a single freestanding unit."
The Freestyle® is just a fancy, shiny fountain pop machine with a touch screen, albeit one that produces enough flavors to cause Michelle Obama to weep. The PR people remind you at every opportunity that the Freestyle® was designed by "the people behind Ferrari." It looks much like a regular Coke vending machine, but with a glowing cyclopean eye and a toothless mouth frozen in the middle of a horrible, silent scream.
Gene M. Farrell, the vice president and general manager of Coca-Cola's Freestyle® division, says that Freestyle® is the "largest innovation in our fountain business, which makes up a third of our total business." The goal of the machine, he says baldly, is to get customers to "increase their consumption." The Freestyle®, he says, offers a luxury experience; when compared to other soda fountains, it's "your iPod versus your Sony Discman." Robby Tonkin, president of Taco Time, agrees. He's handsome and tall and alarmingly youthful; he's the fourth generation of the family that founded the Northwest chain five decades ago. "We want to be the leader in fast dining," he says; the Freestyle® is "new, innovative technology. To be ahead of Jack in the Box or McDonald's is really exciting for us." By the end of this month, 15 of the 72 Taco Times will have Freestyle® machines. In the West Seattle Taco Time, Tonkin says, kids are already making videos of the Freestyle® experience using their iPhones.
The corporate executives and PR people use the i words a lot. They point out that the touch screen is "like an iPad," they say the soda machine looks "cool, like an iPhone," and they explain, "If you've used an iPhone, you already know how to use the Freestyle®." True enough: The machine has a field of circular app-like buttons with Coca-Cola brand names on them: Diet Coke, Fanta, Vault, Dasani, Sprite. When you touch a logo, it brings you to a submenu with flavor options. Press "Coke," say, and you're delivered to a screen with a choice of regular, lime, orange, vanilla, and raspberry (I am assured by a PR person that raspberry Coke is very popular in Europe). Then you depress the huge "Pour" button to fill the cup as much as you like. You are encouraged to mix flavors, freestyle.
A PR person tells me that the kids are already posting "viral Freestyle® recipes on Facebook" and that a favorite is the "Gummi Bear," which is all six flavors of Sprite (original, cherry, grape, peach, raspberry, and strawberry) mixed together. For my first drink, I opt for what the alleged Facebook kids are allegedly calling a Creamsicle—a half-and-half mixture of orange and vanilla Diet Coke. It does, in fact, taste like a Diet Coke with orange and vanilla syrup added in equal parts, sweet and vaguely citrusy, but mostly sweet.
I follow this with a raspberry Coke with Minute Maid lemonade (watery and sour and not very good at all), a peach Vault and lemon Powerade Ion4 Zero (tastes just like the fruit punch at a child's birthday party), a Sprite with strawberry (like a regular Sprite with a handful of strawberry Nerds dissolved in it), a Minute Maid strawberry lemonade with Barq's (the fruit flavoring backs up the root beer flavor quite pleasantly), and the aforementioned Gummi Bear (basically, a nonalcoholic Four Loko; that is, it tastes like poison). In less than an hour, I have consumed two-thirds of a gallon of corn syrup, aspartame, and "fruit" flavoring. Everything I see is hazy, like my head has been wrapped in a thin layer of gauze. I feel faint.
Standing next to the machines, the bossy KING 5 reporter tells Farrell and Tonkin how to say what they're trying to say. "We're only going to have a minute and a half for this," she scolds Farrell when he takes too long to make a beverage. She explains that most of the exposition will be provided by her, over extra footage her cameraman has taken of the machine. Finally, she films the end of her segment, holding a huge tray of paper cups full of a custom-made beverage she cleverly dubs "The KING 5." She prances around in a circle like a show pony among the PR people and reporters with her tray of sodas, urging them in a dumb, childlike voice to take a KING 5 and drink it. I don't know what's in the KING 5, but it is bright red, like a shiny new Radio Flyer wagon. I demur. Finally, the filming ends and there is one last KING 5 left on the tray. She doesn't drink it.
As the TV crew leaves, a Taco Time employee opens up the Freestyle® to show a diminished group of reporters how it works. The soda syrups are in rows of big, shiny black cartridges neatly tucked inside; below those are smaller cartridges of fruit-flavoring syrups. It looks like a high-tech photocopier. Farrell says the Freestyle® is "proving that there's an untapped demand for choice." God, yes. If there is a demand in America® that hasn't been tapped yet, it's the demand for choice. But after more than one of these sodas, it blends together into a blur, a sick-making parody of fruit, a high-pitched sugary whine whose scope of plasticized sweetness is beyond the comprehension of mortal taste buds. All that choice just ends up tasting like corn syrup.