At 800 stores, the Checkers/Rally's fast-food chain may seem overshadowed by giants like McDonald's. But to CardFree, merchants of Checkers' size are ideal customers for its mobile payments technology.

"Checkers is an extremely well-led and motivated organization," says CardFree CEO Jon Squire. "Mobile commerce really resonates with these guys, and they are going completely digital and virtual."

Since launching a year ago, San Francisco-based CardFree has focused on appealing to small and mid-size merchants. Checkers will be the first to deploy CardFree's full array of mobile commerce services, and the startup also counts the 3,500-location Sonic drive-in chain among its early customers. (McDonald's, at over 34,000 restaurants worldwide, promotes the rival Isis mobile wallet.)

For CardFree, "it's been very rewarding [to provide mobile commerce to quick-serve restaurants]," Squire says. Fast-food restaurants are moving away from legacy payments systems and master accounts, and looking to mobile commerce in the future, he adds.

"It's important for them to establish their own brands and rethink how they are going to approach a mobile program with relevant [point of sale] tools," Squire says. "And they are looking to establish a larger relationship with their customers."

Checkers will use CardFree's customer relationship management platform, providing "a lot more data analytics" than a front-end app that allows payments and some merchant-customer interaction, Squire says.

"Checkers will be able to provide 'smart offers' that take into account when, how and what the customer used a deal for in the past," Squire says.

The information gathered about customer behavior strengthens the stored-value card portion of CardFree's platform, Squire adds.

The team at CardFree also has experience with much larger chains. Many of CardFree's leaders worked on the successful mobile payment app for Starbucks, which has 17,500 locations; Squire used to work at CorFire, which developed the app for Dunkin Brands, which has 10,500 Dunkin Donuts and 7,000 Baskin-Robbins stores.

CardFree is smart to keep its focus on small and midsize chains, which have neither the time nor expertise to develop their own mobile payment app, says Adil Moussa, payments strategic marketing analyst at Omaha, Neb.-based Adil Consulting.

"Restaurant owners are thinking about recipes, not mobile commerce," Moussa says. However, quick-serve merchants can benefit from analyzing customer data, he adds.

"If they know a certain customer tends to show up just every two weeks or so, they can provide specific offers to that customer giving incentives to come more often," Moussa says.

Checkers plans to launch its mobile payment app early next year. In the meantime, Checkers will have to decide what the consumer experience will entail, such as whether it supports ordering and paying in advance (Squire says these are common traits).

CardFree's software can also alert Checkers cashiers when a specific customer has entered the store.

CardFree has ambitions beyond the quick-serve restaurant sector, Squire says. "There is no shortage of appetite for mobile commerce with convenience stores and various specialty stores," he says.

Wherever CardFree attracts its next clients, one common denominator fits all industries and regions, says Diane Hong, CardFree's head of marketing.

"It's really about the smartphone, which cuts across all demographics," Hong says.

Merchants can always count on "a good range of people with iOS or Android devices" to be the foundation for any mobile commerce debut, Hong adds.

Checkers is most prevalent on the east coast and southeast portions of the United States. It did not make an executive available for an interview prior to deadline.

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