US burger chain beefs up free Wi-Fi to its 243 stores

Von Todd R.

A year after offering free wireless Internet access to customers in 52 of its company-owned restaurants in the South, The Krystal Co. hamburger chain has expanded the service to all of its 243 company-owned locations.

The free Wi-Fi service is bringing in new customers and has improved internal communications for employees who are traveling by making it easier for them to do their work, said David Reid, CIO of the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company. Krystal began the service in 52 restaurants in June 2004.

The deployments were completed last month in company-owned restaurants in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. At the same time, systems were upgraded to allow customers to use credit and debit cards for their purchases. Many of the chain"s 180 franchise-operated locations are also adding Wi-Fi service, but they aren"t obligated to do so, according to the company.

The service is definitely attracting new customers, Reid said, though the evidence is so far only anecdotal. "We know for a fact that there are people who come here to Krystal just for the hot spots" based on customer interviews, he said. The numbers aren"t large enough yet to be measurable.

About 1,000 different wireless computers have used the free Wi-Fi network so far, he said, based on Internet Protocol and Media Access Control addresses that have been accessing the network.

Krystal"s own mobile workers have also benefited from the wireless system, which has also expanded to its corporate headquarters. "It has made our work force so much more efficient," Reid said.

Previously, salespeople and managers had to find places to plug into phone lines or Ethernet connections to check e-mail or do other work, but now they can sit anywhere in the restaurants and conduct their work easily, he said. "We"re seeing huge gains in our own productivity and our communications. If the customers find it beneficial, then that"s just gravy."

When the Wi-Fi service was proposed, the company quickly chose to provide it for free, he said. "It"s so simple to provide free wireless, and it"s incredibly complicated to charge for it," Reid said. "We looked at it and it was just a no-brainer. It"s like having a clean parking lot and clean bathrooms. It"s just another amenity for our customers."

The Krystal HotSpots can be used by customers without special configurations or usernames and passwords. The HotSpots use a broadband Internet connection that allows up to 32 users at one time to access the 802.11b network. All wireless traffic is funneled through content filters in the company"s IT network to ensure that no pornographic, violent or other objectionable sites are accessed, Reid said.

Ken Dulaney, a wireless analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said Wi-Fi is being used often by companies to "attract people to hang around," potentially raking in additional sales.

"More and more organizations are doing it," Dulaney said. "They"ve got the broadband in there for their own use" and are able to expand it for the use of customers. "It"s more mainstream than two years ago." Similar networks are being seen in hotel chains, truck stops and other businesses, he said.

A list of all the restaurants offering free Krystal HotSpot access can be found at the company"s Web site. The restaurant chain was founded in 1932.