Free Wi-Fi is not hard to find, but you usually don’t find it in big corporate chains. Places like Starbucks, Borders, McDonalds and others have teamed with big providers and usually charge a fee, whether hourly, daily, or monthly, for access on their in-store networks.
So it’s somewhat unique for a 73-year-old hamburger-joint fast-food chain like Krystal to announce that all 243 of its company-owned restaurants will be offering free wireless Internet access to customers. Many of the 180 other Krystal locations run by franchisees have decided to offer wireless as well.
Embracing free Wi-Fi wasn’t an overnight move by the company, which has locations all over the Southeastern United States (“Over 10 Billion Krystals Eaten,” says the company’s Web site). Over two years ago, the company started out by unwiring the locations in its corporate hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee. As of June of last year, 50 locations had 802.11b-based hotspots. David Reid, CIO at The Krystal Company, says the company initially had an integrator help with installation, but has since perfected its setup of the Cisco equipment it uses so that the company helpdesk can simply overnight hardware to any location for plug-and-play Wi-Fi. “We are our one integrator,” says Reid.
Krystal Hotspots‘ launch also coincides with the company’s offering customers the ability to pay using credit and debit cards — like most fast food, Krystal used to be cash only. This is similar to how McDonald’s is using Wayport’s Wi-Fi World program. Wayport puts in wireless, and it is used not just for hotspot access (at $2.95 a hour to start) but also for point-of-sale (POS) terminals and other features.
All the Krystal locations (at least those owned by the company) use broadband connections for communications with the Chattanooga HQ, so piggybacking on that was not a problem. Franchisees also have that option if they use the same POS package. Those that don’t can get recommendations from Reid about third-party “hotspot-in-a-box packages” they can purchase.
The equipment for each location costs about $1,000, which Reid calls “minimal,” since the broadband was already in place. The system includes filtering “so customers don’t get on our restaurant systems,” as well as filters for content to keep connections “family-friendly,” Reid says.
As cyber-squatting seems to be becoming an issue, at least at some coffee shops and cafes, Reid says it hasn’t been a problem at Krystal — and he doesn’t expect it will be. In fact, he thinks free wireless is likely to bring in customers who have gravitated to the drive-thru in recent years. “Our dining rooms are underutilized all day long, with lunchtime as the possible exception,” he says. “[Wireless] is a good way to get people in.”
Krystal “only would charge if the entire rest of the world went to a pay model,” says Reid. “But I see it going the other way.”
Security tunnels lock the connection from the access point to the Krystal network operations center. Like most free hotspots, however, there’s no security built in for the end users. Connections are free to anyone who seeks out the SSID “KrystalHotspot.” Customers can bring their own security, though, if they use services like HotspotVPN or JiWire’s SpotLock.
Usage seems to be good. Reid says what little tracking they’ve done shows about 1,000 individuals a week using the hotspots in the 243 owned branches, an average of almost four users per restaurant per week — though Reid admits that “some have 50 people and some are lucky to have one.” The users signs on an average of 3.5 times per week.
At this time, Krystal doesn’t have any plans to try partnering with other Wi-Fi hotspot providers like Wayport or Boingo. The company is keeping it simple, promoting the hotspots on online directories. Locally, each venue will have posters that feature a colorized mix of emoticons, the old warchalking symbols that never really took off, and what Reid says looks like a smiling Krystal hamburger sitting on its side: