2011 July: COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN

Soda is a serious moneymaker, especially in the pizza world. And fountain sodas, especially, can help keep your business in the black, namely because you don’t have to pay the extra for cans and bottles. Like many owners, Nick Merlino of Goomba’s Pizza in Colmar, Pennsylvania, started out with bottles. “We mostly do take-out and delivery,” Merlino says. “Bottles we don’t have to store cold, we don’t have to worry about ice, it’s pretty much ‘take your bottle and go.’”

However, the company is opening a second store and for that, they’re likely to go the fountain route. “It’s more of a sit-down place,” Merlino says. “So we’ll want to give people that option. They’ve come to expect it.”

This sentiment is true of many pizza places –– both new and growing. They’re finding that fountain sodas are almost a must-have. But what’s the best way to do it? A self-service machine in the dining room? An over-the-counter offering? A little of both? The answer depends on a number of factors, including space, customer expectations and staffing.

First, let’s take a look at the units. Soda fountains come in two styles: behind-the-counter (for use by staff only) and self-service (for both staff and customers). There are many differences between the two, but one of the most important components is the ice-delivery system. Due to the increased health risk of scooping ice (not just with possibly dirty hands, but also with potential for spillage), soda machines with ice bins below the unit typically must be used only by staff members. Self-service units, on the other hand, have ice situated on the top of the machine, either via an automatic ice-maker or a manually filled ice bin.

“Thus, behind-the-counter units tend to be less expensive, because they have less moving parts,” says Mike Cominski, manager of Soda Dispenser Depot. “On the other hand, they also don’t have the glamour and merchandising that a huge unit sitting in the dining room does.”

This brings up another important consideration: how much space will the machine take up relative to the space you have? Behind-the-counter units are smaller, but typically so is the space behind the counter. “For us, the most cramped area is around our counters,” says Matt Galvin, owner of Pagliacci Pizza in Seattle, Washington. “Plus, all the fluid –– liquid, ice, water –– is intermingling in the area where you’re dealing with receipts and customer tickets. It makes sense for us to keep our soda machines away from all of that.”

Beyond the machines themselves, there are additional things to consider. Ice usage, for example, is a biggie for many restaurants. By offering behind-the-counter drinks, staff members control the ice, which is typically cheaper than soda. Self-service customers, on the other hand, are more likely to fill their glass with more soda and less ice.

There is also typically more waste with self-service machines. Customers use extra napkins when they spill, they take too many straws, and they’re more likely to grab one soda, and then dump it out when they realize they wanted something else.

For Kelly Willey, owner of Ramunto’s Brick Oven Pizza in Claremont, New Hampshire, it makes financial and time sense to have someone else take care of the cleaning basics. “We have just one soda fountain in the dining room area, and we have a company that services it regularly,” she says. Bringing someone else in to do the, well, dirty work, does mean an increased cost — but it also means that you’re putting the job in the hands of someone who probably knows the ins and outs of the
machine better than your staff does — and, operationally speaking, that’s never a bad thing.

Refills are another important consideration. If you do free refills, self-service might be a better choice –– the money you’re losing on the extra soda is fairly small in contrast to what it costs to hire someone to refill drinks. This is also true if you charge a small amount for a refill; does the money you’re making offset the cost of hiring someone to do the work of refilling the glass and taking the customer’s money?

“If you’re charging for refills, then self-service becomes a drain,” says Galvin. “When it’s busy and someone just wants a refill and there’s a line of eight people, it can be frustration for everyone. We’ve also gone away from the refill charge because it felt like we were nickel and diming our customers.”

Free refills also add the value perception of getting something for nothing; this can often make or break a customer’s experience. On the other hand, some customers dine out specifically to be served, and the idea of having to pour their own soda does not fit into their expected experience.

Whether you go behind-the-counter or self-service, soda fountains can be a boon for your business. No need to throw your coins in and wish for better sales — the coins will be coming to you instead.

Safety First It’s not hard to keep soda fountains looking and behaving their best, but it does take a bit of upkeep from both owners and staff to maintain cleanliness and safety over the long haul.

First and foremost, obey all the health code regulations for your area. Know them in and out, and make sure your staff does, too. The two most important places to clean are the nozzles and syrup box connections. Nozzles should be removed and soaked in a mild soap solution every night.

“Many restaurants have two sets of nozzles,” says Mike Cominski, manager of Soda Dispenser Depot. “This way they can have one soaking at all times and one in use. This kills off any bacteria that would accumulate on the nozzles and will make your health inspector very happy.”

Secondly, store your syrup properly. Make sure your syrup is kept at the temperature that’s recommended by the seller or manufacturer, and double-check the expiration dates regularly.
Finally, make sure the floors around your machines have the proper coverage and that your staff knows to clean up any spills as quickly as possible to keep accidents to a minimum.

Shanna Germain is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She loves to write about both food and drink, and she contributes to a variety of publications.