There will be no escaping soft drinks if the Coca-Cola Co. is successful with its latest venture: miniaturized vending machines small enough to fit on top any available counter space.
About the size of the family television set, the new dispenser is trademarked as BreakMate, a joint venture between Coke and Bosch-Siemens of West Germany.
The move into minivending was needed, according to one company official, in order to reach the "last remaining dry channel," or about 20 million disenfranchised people who work in offices not large enough to support the typically cumbersome soda machine.
This device, however, now puts the likes of Classic Coke and the company's other brands virtually within arm's reach.
In addition to the convenience of size, the system needs only an electrical outlet and access to a water source in order to provide three different carbonated beverages. In fact, the design is meant to rest snugly alongside the office coffee maker. The recommended positioning underlines Coke's ongoing efforts to wrest daytime sales away from the competition.
"Coffee is a morning beverage, but soft drinks are an all-day option," said Ira L. Gleser, a Coca-Cola spokesman. "And soft drinks are now the beverage of choice in America with people consuming about 45 gallons per capita annually. That's more than even tap water . . . . And Coke is the nation's No. 1 soft drink."
Coca-Cola has experimented with a compact vending machine, in one form or another, since 1973. But it was not until Bosch-Siemens developed BreakMate in 1983 that the concept became viable. The intervening years were spent adapting the appliance to Coke's specifications and then testing it in day-to-day settings.
"This is the largest development project we have ever undertaken," said W. Andrew Harvill of Coke's fountain sales department.
Harvill further maintains that BreakMate marks a milestone in the company's history on par with introductions such as the soda fountain in 1886 and the 1899 debut of Coke in bottles. All three innovations, he maintains, greatly expanded distribution of the soft drink.
"If you make Coke available," he said, "then people will drink it."
And corporate response to the unit seems to support Harvill's claim. In the past year, 20,000 BreakMates have been installed nationwide, with about 1,400 of these in the Los Angeles area alone. Projections call for 40,000 more such placements next year.
Within a decade, the company expects the systems to generate between 1% and 2% of the soft drink giant's sales, or the equivalent of 20 million gallons of Coca-Cola concentrate each year.
The machines are designed to be user-friendly, and the only regular maintenance required is the replacement of empty concentrate containers that house the syrup needed to make Coca-Cola and all other soft drinks. Canisters of carbon dioxide gas, the source of carbonation, also need to be refilled, but on a less frequent basis.
Maintenance aside, BreakMate is financially attractive because the machines are loaned free of charge to customers by its local distributor who, in this case, is ARA/Cory Refreshment Services in Santa Fe Springs. The only expense is the fee for concentrate. At $8 per liter for the syrup, Coke officials estimate that customers receive about 31 (6 1/2-ounce) drinks at 25.6 cents from each container.
Another feature of BreakMate is a compact refrigeration unit that ensures the drinks will be dispensed chilled; an important aspect because the unit does not provide ice as is the case with larger vending machines.
And each customer determines whether the system offers free drinks or requires coin payment. The per cup cost is adjustable depending on a company's view of subsidized beverages for employees.
One of BreakMate's first clients was the downtown L.A. office of Deloitte, Haskins & Sells, which ordered four of the units sight unseen.
In the past several months, the machines have proven popular with the company's 450 employees, said Linda Smothers, the firm's office supervisor, who decided to charge 10 cents per Coke.
"We have a (regular-sized) vending machine here, but we put in the BreakMates so people wouldn't have to go to another floor just to get a drink," she said.
However, Smothers also believes that the machines played a role in increasing worker productivity. By making soft drinks more available, the units have decreased the time people spend wandering around the office and socializing with co-workers.