Fast-food restaurants are rolling out wireless Internet in hopes that customers will spend more time over their burgers, fries and laptops.
By NAOMI SNYDER
Michael Stuart was at McDonald's last week watching his 4-year-old climb inside Playland. Trouble is, he didn't want to be there.
"I come here for my son," said the 30-year-old Bellevue resident.
Of course, McDonald's would rather he didn't feel that way.
The fast-food giant is in the midst of a nationwide wireless Internet roll-out, one of many attempts to get customers to linger longer — and spend a little more.
The largest franchisee in Nashville recently installed free wireless hotspots in all 20 of its restaurants, accessible to anyone with a wireless-enabled laptop who wants to get online.
In a similar move, burger place Krystal is rolling out free Wi-Fi to all 246 company-owned locations. Nine of their restaurants in the Nashville area have it now.
Coffee shops and hotels have been Wi-Fi destinations for years.
But now, increasingly, so are restaurants, including fast food. But while the lure of hanging out in a coffee shop with a laptop and a cafe latte is obvious to many, it's still a question how many people will fall for a Big Mac, a Formica table, and Web browsing.
"I try to avoid those places,'' said Anthony Cappolino, a musician who likes a leisurely afternoon at Fido in Hillsboro Village with his laptop. "Those are sort of in-and-out places. I think they're missing the point."
What's wrong with the vibe at McDonald's?
"Too many soccer moms, I guess,'' he said.
But McDonald's is working on its image.
The wireless Internet is part of an overall campaign to keep the restaurant relevant, albeit somewhat schizophrenic. The company now is a place to get either a fruit and walnut salad for $2.99, or if you want more food for less money, a double cheeseburger for $1.
The restaurants nationwide are beginning to have leather couches, flat-screen televisions, and, in at least one instance, a bookcase. (The latter is planned for the McGavock Pike location this fall, along with a dual-sided fireplace and a waterfall).
"They're trying to change the concept of what McDonald's really is," said Ted Bertuca Jr., an owner/operator, with his father, of McDonald's Management Co. in Nashville.
"It's part of the brand re-image for McDonald's, to make our brand forever young,'' he said. "We're trying to make our restaurants more comfortable, as a sit-down place, not just a place to pick up a meal and run."
About 70% of the Bertuca family's sales are drive-through. The average ticket for a walk-in customer is 25 cents higher than for a drive-through customer, meaning the business makes more money from the customers who bother to come indoors.
Even a small shift toward indoor meals would be significant at some restaurants, which make anywhere from $8,000 to $50,000 per week.
The free Wi-Fi was one part of the Bertuca's attempts to get more customers in the restaurants, especially during non-peak hours of the day. For much of the day, many of the restaurants are almost empty. McDonald's is converting more restaurants to 24-hour formats, and people feel safer going to a restaurant at 3 a.m. if they know other people are there.
Plus, the fast-food business relies heavily on young people. If technologies such as Wi-Fi are the future, Bertuca doesn't want to become irrelevant.
"This is where the next generation is going,'' he said. "My 9-year-old can use computers better than most."
The number of people using Wi-Fi is difficult to determine because some people hop unmonitored onto free or unsecured networks throughout the country.
But the people who pay to get Wi-Fi access at hotels, airports, or coffee shops, such as through T-Mobile or SBC subscriber networks, is growing, with projections of 36,000 paid subscribers by the end of 2005, a 71% increase from last year, according to Roberta Wiggins, an analyst with technology research firm Yankee Group.
Many of the McDonald's across the country that have WiFi offer it through Austin-based Wayport Inc., which charges $2.95 for two hours or $29.95 per month for an unlimited subscription.
About 4,500 McDonald's restaurants have Wi-Fi operated by Wayport. But individual franchisees may choose their own providers, as Bertuca did, going with Nashville-based ISDN-Net and offering the service free of charge. A McDonald's spokesman had no breakdown of the number of free and paid hotspots.
The sheer size of McDonald's makes the roll-out significant for the world of Wi-Fi users. Although the company hasn't committed to adding Wi-Fi in all of its restaurants, it now has more than 6,000 locations out of 13,500 restaurants nationwide.
Panera Bread and Atlanta Bread Co. also are becoming places to find free Wi-Fi. Starbucks in Nashville has yet to roll out its paid service through T-Mobile, although the company plans to do so this year.
Still, doubt lingers about how popular Wi-Fi will be in fast-food restaurants.
Bob Cox, the franchisee of the Atlanta Bread Co. on West End Avenue, has Wi-Fi in that restaurant but not in the Taco Bell restaurants he owns.
He was surprised that fast-food restaurant Krystal was installing it and has no plans to do that in Taco Bell. Most of his fast-food customers in northern Georgia have blue-collar jobs, he said, and there aren't many offices nearby.
"There hasn't been even minor demand for that in my experience," Cox said.
Even the Wi-Fi analyst at the Yankee Group was skeptical.
"I didn't think it was the type of the place where people sit around with their laptops," Wiggins said.
But then again, she could see fast-food restaurants attracting young people with technology, and perhaps, interactive gaming.
Plus, it hasn't been much of a gamble financially.
Bertuca already was installing a new high-speed broadband line to each restaurant earlier this year to process credit and debit cards and to enhance other operations.
He estimates it cost only several hundred dollars per restaurant to add Wi-Fi, and that was mostly because security and a content filter were added.
The Krystal Co. found it equally easy to install Wi-Fi after it invested in the technology to process credit cards.
"It's very easy to provide free Internet access,'' said David Reid, the chief information officer for Krystal. "It's very complicated to try to charge them for it."
Reid said he has no way to quantify whether Wi-Fi is adding to sales.
He estimates 100 different new users log onto the hotspots every month, and that anecdotally, customers are saying they visit more because of Wi-Fi.
"We know that it's a good thing," he said. "We know they come more often."