John Sylvan, one half of the two-man team that invented the Keurig coffee machine, recently admitted to The Atlantic, that 25 years after creating the thing, he doesn’t actually own one. "They’re kind of expensive to use," he said.
But that is exactly why an increasing number of companies are attempting to replicate Keurig’s astounding success by conveniently delivering habit-forming substances at the push of a button. There's Synek, the Keurig for craft beer, and Somabar, the Keurig for cocktails. Flatev is the Keurig of tortillas; Genie is the Keurig of couscous; the One Shot is the Keurig of miso soup; and if its designers are ever able to bring it to market, Cooki will be the Keurig of home-cooked meals. Nature Valley makes oatmeal pods; Campbell’s is planning to make soup pods; and, later this year, in partnership with Coca-Cola, Keurig will try to replicate its own model in the soda market, with Keurig Cold.
Forget the waste, forget the expense: In the future, making a meal could simply mean picking a few pods, pushing a few buttons, and taking credit for the work of an arsenal of short-order appliances.
Given Keurig’s success, it’s no wonder the look-alikes are emerging quicker than you can brew a French roast. Keurig Green Mountain did $4.7 billion in business last year, nearly four times more than in 2010. The company owns more than 20 percent of the country’s retail coffee market, better than the second- and third-place labels, Starbucks and Folgers, combined. Legacy brands like McDonald’s and Krispy Kreme have slapped their names on K-cups, eager for a piece of the market.
The heart of the Keurig business model — the reason so many brands are trying to take a sip from its mug — is those little plastic cups. Like Gillette and Hewlett-Packard before it, Keurig sells an affordable machine and locks people into buying expensive, disposable widgets in order to continue using it: Last year, roughly 9 billion K-cups were sold. But Keurig also promises ease of use, and as Tom Vierhile, a beverage industry analyst with market research firm Datamonitor Consumer, said, “Consumers, especially young consumers, highly value convenience.”
And there's clearly a demand for these appliances. Synek, the beer dispenser, raised almost $650,000 on Kickstarter — two and a half times it goal. Somabar blasted past its $50,000 goal, ultimately raising six times that.
A Wi-Fi-connected counter-top bartender, Somabar measures, mixes, and dispenses cocktails in less than five seconds. All it asks is that a human keep its “Soma pods” filled with alcohol and tell it what to make with a smartphone app. Founders Dylan Purcell and Ammar Jangbarwala are more interested in selling the K-cups of booze, though, than the Keurig of cocktails. Right now, Somabar buyers can fill up their counter-top bartender's pod by hand, but, says Purcell, selling pre-filled Soma pods “is the end goal” for the company. Keurig wasn't a direct inspiration; this business model just make sense. “We simply designed it to have the ability to license our liquor Pods down the road," says Purcell. "But it works out that there are similarities to our business models,” he said.
The key to the Synek model, too, lies in the patent-pending one-gallon bag that brewers fill with suds. The counter-top beer dispenser is not particularly revolutionary: It chills the beer, adds CO2, and dispenses it through a spout. But the company hopes that its bags will replace the decidedly lo-fi growler that craft brewers typically rely on to distribute beer. In Synek’s bag, beer stays good for up to 30 days, which means drinkers don’t have to plow through a growler with a notoriously short shelf life. In addition, the company will have untold licensing opportunities as it attempts to convince brewers to package their beers in Synek’s bags and sell them in grocery stores across the country.
Not all Keurig-like machines take the single-serve pod approach, though. Baby Brezza’s Formula Pro, which mixes bottles with the push of a button, has a reservoir that holds 24 ounces of powdered formula. Similarly, the miso-soup-making One Shot, from Japanese company Marukome, gets dozens of uses out of one concentrated pod. (Of course, the company will gladly sell you small packets of seaweed to add to your soup.)
If beverages (and soup) represent the first wave of Keurig copycats, several companies trying to transfer the concept to full meals are the next. The Israeli product Genie is a “contraption for making meals materialize with no fuss or mess,” inventor Doron Marco told Israel 21C. The Cooki is a highly ambitious attempt to roboticize cooking and sell ingredient pods. But the closest to market is Flatev, a tortilla-making machine that takes single-use dough pods. Upon its planned release this year, Flatev will be selling cinnamon, bacon, chipotle, and plain tortilla pods and plans to expand into roti, naan, and other flat breads. This strategy — working toward “a critical mass of product selections to persuade consumers to invest in the device," says Vierhile, the industry analyst — is right out of the Keurig playbook.
Even if that critical mass is achieved, though, and consumers are ready to plunk down $50 a week for various pods to fill their food and drink machines, these companies might run into an even bigger problem: each other. “Many American counter tops will have room for a Keurig machine, but is there enough space for a tortilla-maker, cocktail mixer, infant-formula-maker, and more?” Vierhile asked. “I have my doubts.” The real question, then, is which companies will be first to merge their contraptions together — a dedicated machine for tortilla-making might be a hard sell, but one that brews you a beer and makes fresh guacamole at the same time? That might be worth it, whatever it costs.