ATLANTA — Move over, coffee brewers. A rival is moving into the office.
The Coca-Cola Co. is marketing tabletop soft drink dispensers, aimed mainly at offices too small to support a vending machine. Introduced relatively quietly five years ago, about 30,000 of the "Breakmate" machines now are in use across the country.
A company that prides itself on ubiquity, Coke had its eyes on the small-office market for years. After some false starts, Coke got the technology fine-tuned and now is advertising the machines in office management publications and through direct mail solicitations.
"It's a big market," says Murray M. Cohen, president of Coca-Cola Refreshment Systems, the Coke subsidiary that markets the machines.
Cohen says there are 1 million offices in the United States with fewer than 50 workers, the Breakmate target. "Wherever there's a coffee brewer, a Breakmate ought to go right with it," he says.
Coke's pitch is that no matter how well equipped an office may be with personal computers, high-tech telephones and fancy desks, the place is incomplete if there's no way to get a cold drink.
A brochure for the machines tells managers that without a Breakmate, employees "are forced to spend valuable business time leaving their immediate work area . . . to find the nearest available soft drink source."
At the real estate appraisal firm Schultz Carr & Bissette, workers used to lug in cases of soft drinks and stock the office refrigerator.
"You'd have to lift the cases around and all that business," says office manager Virginia Hawkins. "It became a real burden."
The firm got a Breakmate machine two years ago, making break time more convenient and sparking what passes in offices for a minor cultural revolution. Employees there now get their Cokes for free, a perk long provided to coffee drinkers.
"They wanted us to pay for Coke but not coffee," Hawkins says. "I'm not a coffee drinker. I say if you've got to pay for Coke, you've got to pay for coffee."
Coke began trying to penetrate the small-office market about 20 years ago with a succession of machines that proved to be too clunky or inefficient until the Breakmate was developed.
One mid-'70s version, which was counter-high and sat on the floor, was equipped with stainless steel holding tanks that had to be refilled with syrup every few weeks.
"It became a messy proposition," Cohen says. "There were about 5,000 of those machines placed, but it never took off because it didn't deliver the type of convenience" of Breakmate.
Breakmate, which takes coins or dispenses for free, mixes drinks from snap-in packages of concentrate. Slightly bigger than a standard office coffee machine, it holds enough packages for 30 6 1/2-ounce servings.
The machines are made in Germany by Siemens. Offices can either lease one or buy a machine for as much as $1,799.
Coke's main competitor, Somers, N.Y.-based Pepsi-Cola Co., also is going after the office market with a miniature vending machine called the "Compacvendor.' Pepsi spokesman Andrew Giangola says the machine holds two cases of soda.
"We certainly see the workplace as an important channel," he says.
Jesse Meyers, who publishes the Greenwich, Conn., industry journal Beverage Digest, says the office machines are a step toward soft drink machines for the home.
"The inevitability of a home soft drink dispenser is as sure as the sun coming up in the morning," Meyers says.
Cohen doesn't rule out the possibility of a home version, but for now he says it's impractical.
"Today this is far too expensive for the home," Cohen says.