How to hack soda machines

Saru Soda brings syrup based beverages in no less than 17 different flavors to Welcome to The Village. During ten days of DORP, the goal is to hack a postmix machine and make it festival proof. Working together with students, they believe they can deliver true craft soda's in more flavors, while saving energy and water.

The start-up wants to reclaim the traditional post-mix machine commonly known from the big brands like Coca-Cola and Fanta. “For beers, people are used to have choice out of hundreds of craft brews," Leslie, one of Saru Soda's founders explains. "When it comes to soft drinks, the variety is poor and is mostly limited to around five different flavors. 80% of all bars serve the same. I want to break this standard by reclaiming the post-mix machines." 

Besides offering some fancy new flavors, Saru Soda’s post mix machines tackle several sustainability challenges. This year, Welcome to The Village uses tap water instead of bottled water, to drastically decrease plastic waste, transport emissions and cooling demands. Saru Soda works on the same principles: post-mix machines are connected to a tap water input and the machine has a built-in cooling system. Imagine a bar like this: no fridges, no bottled water, and a huge diversity of soda’s to choose from! 

Working with Innofest

Saru Soda is at DORP via Innofest. This organization is collaborating with eight festivals in The Netherlands, as a living lab for innovation. As festivals are miniature versions of society, they're the perfect spot to test new products and prototypes.

In DORP 2017, Innofest urges four projects to develop their innovations just a little further, before entering the market. Saru Soda is one of those projects. Are you done with this article? then don't forget to check the project page on the Innofest site. It's in Dutch, by the way.

First day, let's ride

On the first day of DORP, the Saru Soda team travelled for 2,5 hours to the south of the Netherlands to meet a post-mix machine expert with over 30 years of experience in repairing the machines for venues. “In order to understand the machine, we have to turn it inside out," Leslie tells about this quest, "This man has has a shed full of post-mix parts and materials. A few hours later, we left with a trunk full of new parts to test our ideas with."

"Also, we got lot of new knowledge about how we can optimize the system for our syrups,” adds the lemonade brewer. “We learned that syrup pumps need different pressure levels, and we need an additional carbon gas regulator”. 

Apart from optimizing the technical system, the Saru Soda team faces a psychological challenge. “If you google ‘post-mix machines’ you will only find pictures of the big brands. We need to deconstruct the consumer image of the post-mix machine, that is now firmly tight to big brands like Coca-Cola.” Saru Soda doesn’t want to be staged as a healthy organic super juice, Leslie emphasizes. “The syrups used are naturally brewed, but that doesn't make the soda's healthy per sse. We just want to be a valid alternative to the mainstream. I imagine the flavors being listed on the menu, aside of the usual brands”.

'Saru' means Monkey in Japanese. "The kind of monkeys that take hot spring baths in the mountains." Leslie adds, "Me and my business partner have a bit of fascination for Japan. And the way we roll is quite similar to monkeys I think..."


Today was the day to hack the post-mix machine and get it to work. Some Saru Soda machines are already in use at other festivals, so a new and mostly improved system has to be there before the festival kicks off. Students Richa and Tjits - Leslies ‘assistants’ - have no experience in building this stuff, but Leslie is a very visionary team leader. 


“We had no idea what we were doing”, Richa says, “Yesterday we got a crash course on how these machines work, and now we are building it ourselves. I noticed that I think too complicated. I try to measure everything to the millimeter. Then Leslie comes, puts the machine on the table, just draws a circle, and starts sawing.”

Measure twice, cut once

Tjits adds: “we have to work quick and dirty, but it also needs to be neat, because we can’t risk to make mistakes. It’s a balance between making quick but realistic situations”. But how do you find the right balance in that? The girls learned one rule of thumb: “Measure twice, cut once”.

Dummy proof design

“What we learned today is that you have to think from the position of the user,” both students agree. “It should be easy to understand how to connect the modules and everything must be easy to deconstruct. And always leave enough space to make even the most difficult corner accessible with working tools. Because you’ll be sorry if you don’t.”

Crowd sourcing insights

In the ‘Carousel’, a crowd-source moment in DORP to gather insight from fellow villagers, the team asked a rather non-technical question: “How can I change your idea of Coca-Cola?” It’s a difficult question, without a simple answer. Instead of answering the question, people started to explain what they like about Coca-Cola. Interesting, but a far stretch from what the team actually wanted to know.

“We need to find a way to ask our questions differently,” Richa says, “as people's perceptions are less about the product an sich, but more about emotions.” Saru Soda aims to sell a nice drink, rather than a cool brand. And this could be the true challenge of the lemonade makers; will the team work their way around the power discourse of branding and marketing, and still persuade the consumer to accept their product?

Day 3 - idiot time

In the quest for making the machine idiot, and therefor festival proof, Richa and Tjits are working hard on machine manuals for bar staff and maintenance. Leslie has it's own approach on working idiot proof, but then within the team. "I always take into account some idiot time," Leslie says, "so in case something goes wrong, there is time to call each other names, like idiot or worse, and of course, fix the problem in time." Some of this idiot time was spend today to ruin one of the valves, an essential part for the mixing. "Tomorrow a friend comes by to give me a replacement part," Leslie says.

"Idiot time, NOUN: The time needed to correct mistakes or solve problems. Ideally be taken into account before a process starts." 

It's about marketing, idiot!

Leslie is obviously a guy that has his roots in the kitchen and not in front of it. "I'm very focused on the quality and specs of the product. Content actually. But if I learned one thing from the other Villagers today, it is that I'm completely insensitive for things like marketing and branding," he admits. "If you look into my storage space, all you will find is white boxes. No labels, no visuals, no special packaging. 

Just like his product, Leslie knows he's a stubborn guy. "People like Richa and Tjits, but also other people with a background in for example environmental psychology, teach me stuff about marketing," he says. "I usually distrust marketeers and designers, as their approach is often only dominated by making things look nice and sell well. For me the product and sustainability ethics are the most important principles. But in order to scale up and reach out, things like marketing need to be sound as well". He looks energized. Yesterday, he was still struggling with the same question he has been asking for over a year. Now, three days into the DORP experience and influenced by other smart people, his entire view has changed. Marketing is not necessarily evil.

Day 4 & 5 success!

Again, Leslie had to travel half the country to find a missing piece that was needed to fix the post-mix machine. But now he has it, he looks really exited. "It fucking works!", he smiles. "You know the feeling when after two days of hard work, it finally works? I'm so happy!" The machine is ready to provide the crew with sparkling water. He fills a cup half full with apple juice and then adds sparkling water with the post-mixer. "Spapple juice", he proudly calls this mix. He's got some work to do on finding better names.

There's so much to gain by the way we present postmix soda's, and especially Saru Soda as a brand.
- Leslie Dronkers, Saru Soda
Rebranding the traditional postmix machine

People seem a bit confused to see the post-mix machine in this setting. One by-passer is suspicious and asks if they stole the machine from Pepsi. "No, no, no," Leslie responds, "It's not theirs, I just hacked it." This machine will be finalized with elderflower syrup. On the festival itself, the syrups will be mixed with sparkling water.

Day 7 - Saru Soda on the festival

It's Friday and Welcome to the Village Festival is about to start. Around 500 crew members can now tap their own soda backstage. The machine works, so what now?

Of course the story of Leslie and Saru Soda does not end here. This week at DORP was in fact just an acceleration for Saru Soda. Leslie really hopes to enter the market with this product. The people at DORP, with all their different backgrounds and perspectives, have made him realize even better what challenges are ahead. Not only in marketing, but also in sustainability.

"I am very principled when it comes to sustainability," he says. "Just like the quality of the product, I prioritize it over sales or branding." One of the main dilemmas the soda brand still faces is whether to bottle or not to bottle. 

“Festivals aside, all bars want bottled soda's. Not all venues have space for a post-mix machine or think it’s too big of an investment. I am afraid there is no way around it,” he says doubtful. The plan, however, is to introduce the post-mix machines along with the syrups. When syrups are mixed at the location of sales, it's a huge cut-back on transport emissions, as the water doesn't have to be transported over roads.

But Leslie wants to do better than that. “I'm thinking of packaging with higher recycling rates, or use transport vehicles that run on biofuel. But I am aware that a lot of that is outside of my control, and a proper sustainability assessment is needed to compare the options.”

For now, Saru Soda achieved it's goals. The postmix machine is hacked and people seem to like it. However, this entrepreneur is never done developing his product. Or how to sell it, for that matter.

This story was updated daily, for the duration of DORP 2017.

- Story by Nena Bode.