Which company claims to host to the largest free public Wi-Fi network in the country? It's not Starbucks, whose T-Mobile HotSpots aren't free. Rather, it's Panera Bread, the chain of "bakery-cafés" that's famous for its artisanal breads and cozy hangouts. Despite pushback from both internal and external naysayers, Panera chairman and CEO Ron Shaich began pressing heavily for free wireless back in 2003; today, more than 700 of the chain's 800 outlets have the service. "It really came from an understanding that we're in the business of building relationships and trust with our customers," says Shaich. Charging for Wi-Fi, he says, would be like "charging for bathrooms."
While free wireless is popping up in restaurants and cafés all over the place, none have the national reach of Panera. Unlike self-checkout registers or sophisticated phone trees—technology that's intended to help customers but often only aggravates them more—high-tech services like free Wi-Fi draw fans. In the past year and a half, the average number of Wi-Fi customer usage hours in Panera's outposts has tripled. And more hours, of course, means selling more coffee, cookies, and customers on the Panera customer experience.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.