Field Testing Coke's Freestyle Machine, A World of Bad Decisions at Your Fingertips

"So are you pretty excited to try the 106 flavors?"

That's how they've been greeting folks at a Garland Wingstop lately (the one on Northwest Highway), and they're not talking about wing sauce. Coke's testing out its new Freestyle soda fountain at three Wingstops around Dallas, and naturally one of the chosen few is in Garland, where the wing chain was born 16 years ago.

The Garland location got its pair of machines 10 days ago, but they waited till yesterday to spread the word: This is the place for all you easily amused beverage thrill-seekers out there. That's 106 kinds of drink. Infinite soda "suicide" combinations at the push of a button. Medical inkjet technology. And if you're a kid for whom sugary drink consumption has kind of lost its thrill, get ready for a fruity corn syrup Renaissance: Freestyle has pretty much made a video game out of pouring yourself a Coke.

Not since those first Dippin' Dots vending machines has the future looked so promising.

I took a small order of fries with my drink yesterday, so I wouldn't make such an obvious Freestyle tourist. The guy who took my order was excited about the new Coke machines. I had to try the Vault, he told me, because it's pretty awesome.

Four kids, each around 8 to 12 years old, were bogarting the first of the Freestyle machines, and my prospects didn't look good for cutting in. The way they hung around the machine, filling a cup with some oddball drink combination, taking a sip or two, passing the cup around and pouring the rest down the drain, suggested that at least until the novelty wears off, this vending machine serves a whole new purpose. Old machines were about putting drink in your cup; Freestyle's about putting fun in your empty summer days.

Incidentally, one of the common problems with the Freestyle machines so far has been an overflowing spill drain -- they hadn't bargained on people filling a super-sized cup with some Powerade-Fanta miasma, taking a sip, and tossing the rest. The newest machines have been fitted with an extra-large over-spill bucket.

I took my cup and my sense of adventure to the second Freestyle machine, where there was no line -- just three people settled into a table right next to the machine, prime territory for rubbernecking at other people's concoctions. From the look of their faces and their food trays, they might have been there for hours.

Those 106 flavors, then, are a combination of one of 20 drink syrups -- sugared and non-sugared versions of Coke, Dr Pepper, Barq's Root Beer, Sprite, Fanta, Minute Maid, Vault, Hi-C and Powerade; plus fruit-flavored syrups like lime, lemon, strawberry, cherry and vanilla. Oh yeah, and water.

Most exciting, the machine dispenses something called "Dasani Sensations," which I'm pretty sure I've also seen sold from old coin-op vending machines, in the men's room at a truck stop. And they're selling this stuff to kids.

Here's a quick video of the machine in action. Listen extra close for commentary from the folks sitting next to the machine, who made a hot spectator sport out of watching a machine pour Coke into a cup. Guess it was that or the World Cup.

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