Restaurant CIO: Would You Like Wi-Fi with That?

A major regional fast-food chain—with 433 restaurants in the Southeastern United States—is going to offer free wireless connections to anyone who wants to surf while sitting in a burger joint.

The Krystal Co. (the nation’s second-oldest fast-food restaurant chain, founded in 1932) is clearly hoping that a lot of customers will be intrigued and will munch on a burger and fries while gulping from its unlimited refill 802.11 fountain.

But for CIO David Reid, the challenge lay in getting the wireless system installed and supported for as little money—and with as little operational disruption—as possible.

The idea of offering a wireless option came when Krystal officials noticed that University of Tennessee campuses—which some Krystal restaurants are near—had gone fully wireless.

“We thought, ‘If we could draw some faculty and students over there by being wireless as well,'” the chain could do some extra business, Reid said. And the installations would be “plug-and-play and simple and repeatable.”

As luck would have it, the chain had already decided to upgrade restaurants’ network connections to a variety of DSL and cable modem broadband hookups to accelerate credit card, inventory and transaction data communications.

“Because we were having a technician visiting the restaurants anyway,” Reid said, the wireless setups were relatively easy, “and so cost-effective, the way we’ve implemented them.”

Krystal is privately held and has about 7,500 employees and about $400 million in annual revenue, Reid said.

To keep things low in cost and easier to manage, Reid’s department proposed making the service free. Although that certainly made the marketing component of the wireless access more attractive—after all, the goal of the program is to sell more hamburgers—the driving force for the recommendation was IT logistics.

“When you try charging for wireless access, a huge percentage of the costs involves handling the payment. Who has paid and who hasn’t paid?” Reid said, pointing out that password management, billing, time-tracking and security focused on keeping non-paying customers off the system can get complicated and costly.

“So much time and effort involved in that and so little gain. It’s so much easier to just make it free. To us, it just looked obvious. To just collect a few dollars when it’s not even proven that it does have an impact on sales” didn’t make sense, he said.

Reid said he personally believes the wireless service will boost sales. “We know that there are many cases of people coming to our restaurant solely because we’re wireless,” he said. “I really see the wireless is absolutely a differentiator. We’re the only fast-food chain that has that in every one of our restaurants. And it’s free.”

Next Page: How free wireless can pay off.

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