Wi-Fi in restaurants has come a long way since Starbucks began offering it in 2001. Then, it was a fee-based service that customers saw as a perk. These days, however, it's more of an expectation.
"We certainly are seeing it in QSRs and fast casual restaurants, and you can credit Starbucks for starting it," said Dave Matthews, chief information officer and senior VP of the National Restaurant Association.
Although Starbucks required customers to pay for Wi-Fi when it first launched the service, in 2008, it changed the format, giving two hours of free service to guests with registered loyalty cards. In 2010, it rolled out its present-day free service in hopes of strengthening its connection to customers and bringing them relevant innovation, a spokesperson wrote in an email to fastcasual.com.
"We are delivering both by elevating the digital experience our customers have in our stores," she said.
Some restaurants have been slow to adopt such a digital experience in fear of squatters taking over their tables and staying for hours without buying more than a cup of coffee. However, the NRA has found that those predictions are false.
"If (guests) are staying in the restaurant, they are going back to the register to get something else; they are continuing to purchase," Matthews said.
Medium and larger fast casual and QSR chains that don't offer Wi-Fi are now becoming the exception, especially as more customers embrace Web-enabled devices, such as smartphones and tablets. When it comes to smaller chains or independent restaurants, Matthews said it depends on the sophistication of the operator. Many are Millennials, who have grown up with the technology, so "it's in their DNA," he said. They're going to embrace Wi-Fi faster than an independent operator from the baby boomer generation, who is usually not as quick to adopt technology enhancements.
Many of the younger restaurant operators are also using Wi-Fi to help run their businesses; they use Internet access to allow customers to order and pay from tablets or phones. Since they're already equipping their units with Wi-Fi, it doesn't take much to provide customers with free access.
"I compare it to air conditioning," said Roger Glickman, CEO of Great Circle Family Foods, which operates several Krispy Kreme locations throughout Southern Califonia. "Of course we'd have AC; customers expect it, and we feel the same about free Wi-fi."
Since Glickman rolled out Boingo Wi-Fi in his locations nearly two years ago, he's noticed an increase of customers during off-peak hours. The Internet access makes Krispy Kreme a viable spot for working customers who may want a change of scenery from their offices or homes.
"We've not done any actual tests, but anecdotally, I know we are busier during our off-hours, and that probably has something to do with the free Wi-Fi," Glickman said.
Many restaurants use Wi-Fi to inspire customers to engage with the brand via social media while they're actually on site. All it takes is a simple table top sign which then prompts customers to visit the brand's Facebook page, tweet their location or check-in on Foursquare to earn points or freebies.
Glickman's partnership with Boingo also gives him another way to push products. Customers logging on first see a splash page that he uses to showcase new menu items or to offer discounts.
"It's really an integrated branded digital marketing platform," said Boingo's Christian Gunning. "It can be an extension of their existing branding. They can also use it to partner with other brands."
For example, maybe an operator will run a message from his soda supplier or another food vendor.
"There are different ways to co-promote and to capitalize on that splash screen," he added.
Gunning, who refers to this period of time as Wi-Fi 2.0, said restaurants are now embracing the technology because of its ease of use. When the service first popped up several years ago, operators had to install and maintain their own connections. They often relied on access points that wouldn't work if they became unplugged.
"It wasn't worth the burden of installing and maintaining it," Gunning said.
Now, there are carriers, such as Boingo, that handle that burden. They not only provide the installs, but they remotely manage the network and fix any service problems that come up.
"What differentiates 1.0 from 2.0, is the ability to provide a full turnkey solution to franchisees," he said.
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Cherryh Butler has been a reporter for nearly 10 years, writing on a variety of topics ranging from the restaurant industry to business and health and fitness news. Before joining FastCasual.com as editor, she oversaw KioskMarketplace.com and PizzaMarketplace.com and contributed to RetailCustomerExperience.com. She's also written for several daily newspapers, magazines and websites, including The Kansas City Star and American Fitness magazine.