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Coke Freestyle changes the soft drink dispenser game at Firehouse Subs

In the arms race among retailers building walls of soft drink dispensers, a space-age Coke machine the size of a kitchen refrigerator packs a much bigger wallop.

Coke Freestyle, which debuts this week in all 21 bay area Firehouse Subs stores, offers a staggering 120 drink choices. That includes 70 diet or low-calorie options, 90 caffeine-free drinks and 80 flavor combinations not sold elsewhere.

Or you can mix your own blend in cups priced from $1.69 for 22 ounces to $2.14 for 48. Coke, orange and vanilla, for instance, tastes a lot like a Creamsicle. But the big seller is Firehouse's special cherry-lime Coke.

Customers choose their potion on a touch screen mixmaster. Choices include Vault, Powerade, Hi-C and Minute Maid, plus up to eight flavors.

But the high-tech innards of this space-saving dispenser set it apart: A precision microdoser doles out unlimited drink and flavor blending choices. Super-concentrated syrup 30 times the strength of standard soda syrup is combined with carbonated water. A link to Coke automatically orders replenishment syrup cartridges.

The rig costs a retailer more to rent than the free standard dispensers, but Freestyle is touted to make it up with extra business.

Firehouse, which volunteered to be guinea pig for early tests, is the first chain to go nationwide.

Five Guys will be next while Burger King and McDonald's take test drives. So far, 1,200 machines have been deployed nationally after a series of Coke dispensing experiment misfires.

"We think this one really has a lot of potential," said Susan Stribling, spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Refreshments. "We've found people like it so much that some switch restaurants to use it."

"It exceeded our expectations fourfold," said Don Fox, chief executive of Jacksonville-based, 440-store Firehouse Subs.

Sales leaped 16 percent and traffic 11 percent from a year ago in outfitted locations. Locally the chain will offer free samples at all stores from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday.

A few other things. The Dasani water it pours is filtered tap water, not bottled. Freestyle serves up Dr Pepper and Seagram's tonic water, too. But otherwise it's all Coke. No Pepsi.

• • •

Retail Real Estate Roundup: Westfield Shoppingtown Countryside has signed up a BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse that opens in March as a complement to its new 12-screen, stadium-seating Cobb Theater that opens in December. It's the first of five restaurants headed to the new wing at Countryside.

• Trader Joe's — the no-frills, new-age grocer with a cult following — will open its first Florida store in Naples by year's end.

"We haven't heard anything about Tampa Bay yet, but they are looking all over Florida," said Jim Kovacs, retail director at Colliers International in Tampa.

• Evos, the Tampa quick-serve chain that bakes its healthier burgers and fries in super-hot air, has rebounded from two years of negative sales and the loss of a Las Vegas franchisee.

With a franchise store now running in Miami and same store sales on the rise thanks to a decor upgrade and the kickoff of a catering business, Evos, with seven stores in three states and system sales of $6 million, aims to get back on a growth path.

With a joint-venture partner, Evos is scouting Pinellas for its fifth local store. It's also picking a college student union for a food-court test with concession giant Aramark, and it plans to use SBA loans to open its first two flagship stores in Palm Beach and Broward counties next year.

• • •

BROADER NORTH OF THE BORDER: Shelley Broader, one-time chief executive of Sweetbay Supermarket, has been promoted to president of 400-store Walmart Canada.

Mark Albright can be reached at albright@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8252.

Coke Freestyle changes the soft drink dispenser game at Firehouse Subs 10/03/11 [Last modified: Monday, October 3, 2011 10:44pm]

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