Krystal refuses to act its age.
The 91-year-old Atlanta-based chain is learning a lot from partners—Datassential, Brandwatch, and Sparkfly, to name a few—to see how customers are reacting to its messages. Krystal is determined to understand who its authentic audience is and where it needs to double down. The brand has about 300 stores nationwide, but most are in the Southeast. The legacy company has dreams beyond its current geographies and product lineups. It wants to be a more mainstream quick-service restaurant.
“If somebody comes to us, where else did they go? What is our true competitor?” says CMO Casey Terrell. “Because it’s White Castle, but not really because there aren’t really White Castles in the South outside of Orlando and some other places. So where do they truly go? So it’s the big guys—McDonald’s Burger King, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A. And we’re the original late-night spot that some other brands have filled in. So we’re just trying to reclaim a lot of our lost ground.”
“I think that we did a really good job this last year of putting a flag down that we were here,” he adds. “We’re still alive. We’re 91 years old, but we’re innovating and getting better.”
In January 2022, Krystal made waves by announcing rap star 2 Chainz as its head of creative marketing. The music icon is tasked with creating multiple platforms and partnerships covering menus and merchandising. The biggest splash came a few months later with the company’s new “Side Chik” chicken sandwich, a term popularized by millennials and Gen Z. The campaign, created with marketing agency Chemistry and internet personality Brittany Renner, was executed across television, social, out-of-home, and more. Around the same time, the concept showcased actor and singer Ray J in commercials to remind customers of late-night offerings.
Krystal began 2023 by releasing new commercials for its Sunriser Breakfast Sandwich with the help of Les Garland, cofounder of MTV and VH1, and Libbie Higgins, an online influencer. More recently, in honor of the NCAA Tournament, the slider chain released a TikTok-based Side Chik bracket. Krystal pitted its Side Chik lineup—Spicy Chik, Donut-Glazed Sweet Chik Biscuit, Donut-Glazed Spicy Chik Biscuit, and the Classic Chik—against each other and let fans vote for their favorite.
The brand also asked guests—via Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok—to develop its latest tagline. The winner was “Now you Know.” Terrell says social media is supposed to be about conversation. He sees brands always claiming they want engagement online, but it’s the same research, focus groups, and tests. This time around, Krystal wanted to ask followers in real-time.
“Let’s try to break the mold a little bit here,” Terrell says. “I don’t need to go to a research agency that’s going to give me an N of 1,500 and tell me statistical significance. I just want to get a check from my fans about what they like. And so we’ll continue to do more stuff like that because I thought the cool thing to look at for the fan was, ‘Oh, they actually did something based on what we said instead of like, ‘Oh yeah, we get a temperature check.’”
Terrell says the intention is to target younger, college-aged customers engaged in the urban hip-hop community. But the executive also recognizes there are several Krystal stores in rural areas that it doesn’t want to upset or alienate. He refers to the group as the company’s “pastoral pride.”
“How do we parse those two messages to make sure it’s one brand? Terrell asks rhetorically. “We’ll still use our partners. We’ll do a lot. I think we’ll add to the base. I think that there’s some stuff on the country side that we’ll do. Some other artists that we like. But the most important thing for us is the experience.”
“I think we’re less focused on how do we shock as opposed to how do we now use all of this brand?” CMO Casey Terrell says.
These efforts were about “let’s just get some excitement and take a risk,” Terrell says. Moving forward, Krystal doesn’t plan to be shock and awe constantly. The brand doesn’t want customers continually thinking, “Where are they going to go now?” However, Krystal won’t go stale either. The company wants to be more connected on social media and immersed in the zeitgeist. Terrell used the comparison of Wendy’s, which operates more like a friend you follow—full of memes, funny responses, and videos.
Krystal’s way of pushing the envelope will be through new and different culinary products.
“I think we’re less focused on how do we shock as opposed to how do we now use all of this brand?” Terrell says.
Ray Kees, director of culinary for Krystal, says the company’s menu innovation is essentially the same as others—a stage gate funnel process that starts with 200 ideas for one particular item. They’re all filtered and flushed through various steps of testing. Then, depending on the product’s concept or marketing, it may go through consumer location tests and focus groups. But everything doesn’t have to go through the rigors. Some of it is common sense.
“Some items we develop here in the test kitchen,” Kees says. “We’re like, ‘You know what, it’s a milkshake.’ People love milkshakes. There’s certain parameters you want to hit based off season and your target audience, but we don’t necessarily have to put everything through the rigors of testing.”
This is Kees’ second stint at Krystal after working for the brand from February 2016 to October 2018. He says new ownership is more focused on quality. One of the first projects he worked on was reengineering the Side Chik sandwich. Before he came on board, it was a chopped and formed product, which isn’t bad, Kees says. The item served its purpose, but Krystal knew customers wanted something different. So in the latest version, the build is the same, along with a crunchy, savory coating and “whole muscle” white meat breast.
Krystal—known for its small sliders— also found an opportunity to fill consumers’ needs with a more indulgent burger. As of press time, the chain was testing a larger iteration with quarter-ounce patties seared on a griddle, and a potato bun, cheese, sauce, and a pickle.
It’s an example of the brand’s nothing-off-limits approach to culinary creations.
“We’re willing to look at just about anything,” Kees says. “In the past, we haven’t been, which also held us back in innovation because if it didn’t fit on a small hot dog bun or fit on a little 2.5-inch slider bun, we would throw it out. We just wouldn’t look at it. If it didn’t go into the deep fryer, we would also throw it out. So we’re looking at ways to use our equipment a bit more. That opens it up a bit. We’re having a little bit more fun with the menu.”
Terrell says none of these changes matter if customers don’t have a good experience at the restaurant and operations aren’t up to speed. To ensure this, Krystal hired industry veteran Jermaine Walker as its vice president of operations. He most recently served in the same role for Slutty Vegan. Also, he spent nearly 10 years with GPS Hospitality, a franchisee of Burger King, Popeyes, and Pizza Hut, and worked as director of operations for TGI Fridays.
Walker is never in the office, and Terrell loves it. That means he’s visiting restaurants and upholding standards.
“This brand was founded on Crystal Clean,” the marketing executive says. “That’s where the name came from. Clean as a crystal. That has not been the guest experience, and we need it to be. And so a huge part of our main focus is on operations and just getting back to what made us great. That’s really on the corporate side. The franchisees have done an amazing job forever and they’ve continued to, so we’re trying to make sure that the brand you see on social media and online and on TV matches the in-store experience. And a lot of that really has to do with corporate stores and getting better.”
Terrell, who came onboard in 2022, admits Krystal has had hiccups in the past and the communication with franchisees hasn’t always been the best. For the past decade, leadership hasn’t been consistent. Fred Exum was CEO for nine years until Argonne Capital bought the chain in 2012. In the following years, the brand cycled through several chief executives before entering bankruptcy in 2020 a couple of months before COVID hit the U.S. Krystal was eventually purchased by Fortress Investment Group in May 2020 for $48 million. In 2023, the brand merged with SPB Hospitality, parent of Logan’s Roadhouse and Old Chicago.
Franchisees have had a front-row seat to the past turmoil, and Terrell says transparency and explaining the data behind decisions will go a long way in building trust. Some operators have been around a long time. Wayne Hale, who Terrell describes as the “godfather of Krystal,” has been with the brand for three decades. The executive leans on the advice of operators like Hale. There’s an official Krystal Council, but a lot of it is also informal text messages and calls.
“We’ve made some mistakes and we had to rectify them,” Terrell says. “But in general, they know that we care. We’re on the same page. This brand has been around a long time with a lot of owners, and they’ve seen me multiple times. It’s on us to earn their trust. We really try to be as transparent as possible.”
Terrell says much of it comes down to getting wins, driving traffic, and building sales. In January, a new 1,700-square-foot double drive-thru prototype debuted in Center Point, Alabama. It uses 20 percent less kitchen space and comes without a dining room.
It was the first company store opening in six-plus years, proving to franchisees that Krystal wants skin in the game, Terrell says. Additionally, the brand is leveraging celebrity power to grow franchises. Victor Cruz, former NFL player for the New York Giants, will open Krystal’s first inline restaurant in New Jersey, where it has no presence. Charlamagne tha God, a popular radio host, plans to open six restaurants in South Carolina.
The story Krystal is trying to tell is straightforward. It’s outside of being known as the oldest sliders in the South. Instead, the brand wants everyone to see how it can be so much more, Terrell says.
“I think that’s what we’re really trying to get to,” he says. “Our new tagline is ‘Now you Know’ and there’s a reason. So it’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that Krystal had big burgers. I didn’t know Krystal did it this way.’ Now you know. And so that’s ultimately the brand revival where we’re trying to go.”