Font of Invention

How PepsiCo reinvented its soda fountain.

12.30.14 5:00 PM ET

In restaurants and movie theaters around the country, a reinvention of a device that dates to the 19th century is harnessing the latest technology and design innovations to provide instant gratification, seemingly endless choices, and an entirely new customer experience.

We’re talking, of course, about the soda fountain.

Last May, at the National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago, PepsiCo began to roll out its futuristic Spire soda fountains, which draw design inspiration from touchscreen devices such as smartphones and tablets, and the growing empowerment trend that allows consumers to personalize and customize everything from music lists to their favorite ice cream and yogurt dishes.

Why change something that has worked well for more than a century?

Soda fountains have long been fixtures in America’s malt shops, restaurants, cafeterias—and anywhere else beverages are served in volume. They mix carbonated water with syrups, and fused them together seamlessly in a frothy cold stream—all on demand.

At first, the soda fountain was an artisanal personal experience—the people who operated them were known as “soda jerks” because they had to jerk the soda-dispensing handle back and forth. But over the 20th century the world became more automated and the “soda jerk” became obsolete.

The bubbles still came out, but the personal mixology had been lost.

To recreate some of the personalized experience, the PepsiCo research and development (R&D) team began working with its internal business partners to match the latest technology and design concepts with consumers’ rapidly changing preferences for customization.

“We’ve all come to expect a high-definition digital experience when interacting with devices,” said Robert Lewis, senior vice president of PepsiCo’s Research and Development’s Equipment Development and Engineering Technology. “Compared to changes in other parts of our daily lives, we saw an opportunity to contemporize the fountain equipment. Our goal was to discover and create a new world of possibilities; and that’s exactly what we accomplished.”

To do so, the company called into action a range of experts with competencies that included marketing and consumer insights, R&D (fluidics, engineering, flavorists, etc.), design, foodservice, business information systems, and the people who install and service PepsiCo fountain equipment.

“The core team was supported by the entire PepsiCo Global R&D team from the very first day and remained so throughout the entire process,” said Dr. Mehmood Khan, executive vice president of PepsiCo and chief scientific officer. “Marketers, designers and R&D teams worked together through the development process to ensure that designs, which satisfied consumer needs, could be quickly and efficiently developed and brought to market.”

The team’s first task was to study consumer research and in-market observations to better understand the unmet needs and preferences of 21st century, high-expectation consumers and restaurant operators.

Pepsi Spire™

Consumers, they learned, want an experience that is simple, engaging, and fun. They want more choices too; to personalize beverages with recipes that combine brand products with popular flavorings. Creating a positive consumer fountain experience is what restaurant owners’ want, most off all, because that’s what sells beverages. But they also wanted compact, modern designs that adapt to a wide range of restaurant configurations, improve traffic flow, and complement their establishment’s décor. And, of course, they wanted them to be affordable.

As work progressed on the new fountain, ideas were generated, sketches drawn, and models built. Consumer testers evaluated competing designs. For the R&D team, every detail, such as size and footprint, ease of use, integration of digital touch screens, and cup placement, were thoughtfully considered and integrated into the functional design. Even the nozzle—there’s only one on each Spire unit—was carefully engineered by the R&D team to accommodate the internal systems needed to deliver multiple products, flavors, and carbonated and non-carbonated water. “The Spire nozzle is also illuminated to create a sort of theatrical experience when selecting and dispensing a beverage,” said Terry Chung, director of equipment development, PepsiCo Global R&D.

Following the initial design phase, the R&D team took the lead to bring the new fountain to life.

“The number one challenge for R&D was space,” said Chung. “The fountain was designed with a very small footprint, yet it had to pour up to 12 brands and six flavors. From an R&D standpoint, we had to make sure all the components, such as valves, flow controls, tubing, electronics and control boards, and the touchscreen display, all fit in the compact design and could be easily accessed for service.”

The other challenge, says Chung, was the development of internal parts and components that could be used across the entire next generation fountain, cooler, and interactive vending technologies all under development at PepsiCo R&D. To simplify maintenance, “everything we created had to be utilized across the entire platform of new equipment,” he said.

One thing that did not have to be re-engineered was what the industry calls the “backroom package,” the components behind the dispenser. These include syrup boxes and a carbonated water pump and water filtration system. To minimize disruptions during fountain conversions, and make the system seamless for customers, PepsiCo integrated its legacy backroom package into the new Spire system.

“That’s what makes Spire very attractive, very simple, and very convenient from a store conversion standpoint,” said Chung. “You don’t have to worry about changing the backroom. Many of the components we use are legacy parts that are already in the store and our service centers; that are familiar to our customers.”

“It’s an example of really smart R&D engineering to create a fountain with a new look and function, but do so using existing elements that simplify the transition for our customers and is mindful of costs,” said Lewis.

Typically, new equipment is developed in the span of two or three years. But in seven months, the team took the project from the drawing board to a real-world test in Albany, New York. Today, the Pepsi Spire is a portfolio of innovative fountain beverage dispensers that allow consumers to create a wide range of customized beverages with the touch of a button, while giving foodservice operators a choice of flexible and cost-effective equipment that best meets their needs.

Spire, like most fountains, includes a variety of popular brands – Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Sierra Mist, Brisk Iced Tea and SoBe Lifewater. Spire allows users to customize drinks through a series of no-calorie flavor shots, mostly fruit-based like strawberry, lemon, and cherry. The fountain lets people create products that aren’t available in a convenience store cooler, or at traditional dispensers, like a raspberry Diet Pepsi, or a cherry lemon Mountain Dew, or a vanilla Brisk Iced Tea.

Spire comes in three sizes. There’s a countertop self-service unit with a 10-inch touchscreen that allows self-service for up to 40 combinations, and a larger countertop unit with a 15-inch touchscreen. The largest unit is the Spire 5.0, which features a video screen and enables the creation of up to 1,000 different beverage combinations.

The fountains are meant to inspire the people who purchase the fountains – movie theater owners, restaurateurs, and cafeteria operators – as well as consumers. PepsiCo is rolling Spire out at Buffalo Wild Wings locations as part of a far-reaching partnership. And as The New York Times reported in May, Marcus Theatres, a chain of movie theaters, has been testing the Spire in Wisconsin. “But we’re seeing that Spire is actually something consumers are seeking out — and the benefit of that is higher soda and snack sales for us,” Rolando Rodriguez, chief executive officer of Marcus Theatres, told the Times.

These new fountains are being compared with smartphones not just because of the touchscreens, but because they are in many ways more intelligent and interactive. The Spires gather data every time somebody uses them; they log each “product.” And so Pepsi – and its customers – can now glean information on trending flavors, whether lemon-flavored Diet Pepsi is popular in Southern Florida, or whether people prefer carbonated drinks at a certain time of day. What’s more, the screens can be updated remotely – with videos, messages, coupons, promotions, or other relevant information.

“The Spire project has been a tremendous success,” said Dr. Khan. “The collaboration with our business and commercial partners made possible the creation of this innovative fountain system and a quick deployment to market. The Spire team serves as a model for future PepsiCo innovation projects.” And what are those future innovations? Dr. Khan won’t offer any hints, but he said Spire was designed with the future in mind. “So there are more fountain innovations and exciting features coming,” he said.

“Some will be visible to consumers and some will not, but they will all make our refreshment experiences more interesting and engaging.”

For more information on Spire, visit www.PepsiSpire.com. For more on PepsiCo, visit www.PepsiCo.com.