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Schlotzsky's Warchalks a Stealth Ad Campaign

Warchalking -- some deride it, other are devoted to it. It's simple really; it's a method used to identify free public access Wi-Fi networks. It's based on the symbols used by the hobos of yesteryear to identify houses as friendly to their entreaties.

And now, warchalking is a marketing ploy.

Schlotzsky's , the 31-year-old restaurant chain with 700 locations around the world (most in the U.S.), has launched its Schlotzsky's Deli Cool Cloud Network in ten Schlotzsky's restaurants in Austin, TX, and one in Houston. Each location with the Cool Cloud is owned by the company. The 802.11b-based wireless network in each location is backed by a T1 line and fully free and open to the public. And while a number of people already know about and use the nodes, Schlotzsky's plans to get the word out using this symbol: )(

Warchalking Symbols In warchalking circles, that inverse set of parentheses (half circles, really) are known as the open node symbol. They are usually accompanied by the Service Set Identifier (SSID) of the wireless network, which is the unique identifier for the WLAN in question (unless it's the generic "ANY").

In Schlotzsky's case, the )( has already been chalked into the sidewalk at the eleven hotspot locations -- though many of the branch managers, not knowing what the marks were, hosed them off the sidewalks before being told about the plan. The SSID at each eatery: "Schlotzsky's Cool Deli" (sans quotation marks).

At this weekend's football game at the University of Texas at Austin, during the first quarter visitors will see a banner flying overhead with just the open node symbol. They can puzzle over it for a while, then, by the fourth quarter, the banner will change to say: "Schlotzsky's Deli -- Free Wi-Fi."

So why all the cryptic warchalking? It's more fun this way, says Schlotzsky's president and CEO John Wooley. The little bit of mystery is "the way to create word of mouth and awareness. Before we installed and told anybody, the techno whiz kids that can sniff it out found us and started using it and got us some local press. That underground process was a good experience for us, so we decided to go with that."

This is neither the company's first foray into wireless -- they use pagers to alert customers that food is ready -- nor its first time providing computing power for customers. Schlotzsky's has had free Internet-ready workstations in its restaurants for a while. When they decided to take those computers wireless, including a number of the new flat-screen "igloo" iMacs, they realized the 802.11b signal served much more than their internal free computers.

The network is open to users of the in-store terminals, anyone who comes in with an 802.11b-enabled device (the restaurant doesn't provide network cards, at least not yet), or anyone in range of the signal. In fact, a residence hall at the University of Texas only a half a block from one Schlotzsky's Deli location is taking advantage of the wireless access. The dormitory's residents can't get broadband themselves.

"It's about pleasing customers and being popular with potential customers. Free broadband -- people get excited about it. It becomes a form of advertising in the neighborhood," says Wooley. Eventually the plan is to offer up a captive portal page so that anyone who logs in to the free network will first see a page reading something akin to "This free Internet access is brought to you by Schlotzsky's Deli."

Wooley was enthused to find out that customers in Starbucks coffee shops in proximity to a Schlotzsky's have been able to take advantage of the free network instead of paying for the T-Mobile Broadband. The legality of overlapping signals and potentially poaching Starbucks customers is probably up for debate, but Wooley says if the litigious Seattle-based beverage maker wanted to sue, that would be more good, subversive advertising.

The Schlotzsky's company originally planned to keep the Cool Cloud Network to just its 37 company owned stores. About 95 percent of the Schlotzsky's Deli locations are run by franchise owners and there are no plans to push Wi-Fi on every location. However, Wooley has been surprised by the reaction he's seeing.

"Franchisees who see this immediately want to know how to get set up and get terminals and wireless," says Wooley.

There's a list of all the Schlotzsky's Delis with Cool Cloud Network Wi-Fi access at www.cooldeli.com. The company use that domain name for their site because, as Wooley asked rhetorically, "Who can spell Schlotzsky's besides us?" Probably anyone looking to use their SSID to get online, that's who.

Once they figure out what that warchalking symbol means.

Eric Griffith is the managing editor of 802.11 Planet.

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