From smoothies and shakes to coffee blends and soda mixers, automation is putting beverage customization into the hands of customers.
Ever notice how it takes longer to order a coffee drink at Starbucks than it does to order dinner at the Ritz? Maybe it's because you don't feel the need to specify every ingredient when you order a bouillabaisse.
Truly, customization has not only come to the beverage category, but run amuck in it.
It is no longer just kids and college students, etiher. From custom-blended smoothies to personal soda concoctions, customers enjoy having their drinks their way, and beverage machine technology is making it possible for them to do it without a barista or soda jerk.
Crucially for onsite operators looking to boost retail profits, advanced technology can help slow the erosion of high-margin fountain drinks by offering what bottles can't — virtually limitless customization.
It is a formula that chain restaurants are discovering. Just check out the “Your Ultimate Drink Stop” campaign that has been a huge hit for Sonic Drive Ins, where customers can mix up more than 168,000 different drink combinations, according to the chain's marketing.
Behemoths like McDonald's and Burger King are now also experimenting with their own versions of the customer-as-mad-scientist-mixologist ethos, sensing a new profit driver.
Largely, it has been that advances in dispenser technology have made such offerings possible. Today, it is possible to squeeze more than a dozen beverages plus multiple flavor shot choices into a couple feet of counter space, thanks to high-tech nozzles that can dispense up to four different selections.
Most recently, Manitowoc's Servend unit rolled out the Flav-R-Pic, a 30" dispenser unit with 16 beverages across four points of dispense and eight flavor shot options from two dispense points. It also lets users choose their ice preference (crushed or cube).
Kicking Up Coffee
It's not just cold beverages that are benefiting from technology that lets customers make their own drinks.
Automated coffee choice used to be a matter of “caf or decaf.” More recent advances have allowed customers to choose the strength of their coffee, and even make rudimentary espressos and “cappuccinos.”
Single-cup brewers from various manufacturers give customers the option of choosing from multiple blends and flavorings — or even alternate hot beverages like teas and hot chocolates.
Most of these high-tech office brewers offer customization in terms of coffee strength and some even dispense realistic specialty coffee drinks like cappuccinos and espressos. Now, at least one company has added DIY flavoring to the mix.
A new unit, to be introduced at this month's NRA Show in Chicago by Concordia Coffee Systems, adds multiple flavor options at the touch of a button to self-serve specialty coffee drinks.
Concordia's IBS6 features two espresso bean choices and an on-board refrigerator that holds two standard one-gallon containers of fresh milk. Six different Torani syrups and sauces — chocolate, caramel, vanilla, sugar-free vanilla, hazelnut, almond and chai — can then be infused into the milk steaming process through a proprietary system. The beverages are available in combinations like caramel hot chocolate.
Another category getting the DIY treatment thanks to technological advances is shakes and smoothies.
Make-it-yourself milkshakes, smoothies and frozen cappuccinos are now possible with a line of machines from fREAL that require customers only to select a flavor, remove the lid from the cup, choose a thickness setting, push a button and wait while the machine whips up the treat.
The premixed cups are stored in a freezer case next to the machine, giving an operation a dairy-based frozen treat alternative to slushies.
As the customization and do-it-yourself ethos continue to spread among customers, operators can expect to see more and more user-friendly equipment options rolling out from manufacturers and branded beverage suppliers.