Founded October 24, 1932, in Chattanooga, in the first years of the Great Depression, entrepreneur Rody Davenport Jr. and partner J. Glenn Sherrill theorized that even in a severe economic upheaval, "People would patronize a restaurant that was kept spotlessly clean, where they could get a good meal with courteous service at the lowest possible price." Krystal is the fourth-oldest hamburger chain in the United States (the oldest being White Castle) and the oldest in the South.
Davenport visited White Castle restaurants taking notes of successful features before setting forth on his own venture. Davenport and Sherrill set up the first Krystal at the corner of Seventh and Cherry streets in Chattanooga. While the building still stands, the original Krystal restaurant is no longer in operation. The oldest Krystal still in operation is located on Cherokee Boulevard in Chattanooga's Northshore District. As far as the unique name, company legend states that Davenport and his wife were riding down a mountain road when Mrs. Mary McGee Davenport saw a lawn ornament in the shape of a crystal ball. While gazing at the lawn ornament, Mrs. Davenport commented that since Davenport and Sherrill felt cleanliness was a cornerstone of the concept, they should name the restaurant Crystal for "clean as a crystal", yet with a "K" to add a little twist.
Krystal restaurants, both company-owned and franchised, operate in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. There is also a single Krystal in Bristol, Virginia (which lies on the Tennessee-Virginia border), and two in Arkansas, one in West Memphis (directly across the Mississippi River from Memphis), and one on the other side of the state in Springdale (which is in the Fayetteville, Arkansas metropolitan area). Krystal is often compared to a similar Midwest restaurant chain White Castle, but other than Nashville and several Kentucky markets, the two restaurants seem to have drawn their own Mason-Dixon line when it comes to competition.
Krystal still maintains corporate headquarters in Chattanooga, and has been owned by Port Royal Holdings, Inc. since 1997. In the late-1990s, Krystal emerged from a bankruptcy petition and sale of assets that placed majority ownership outside the heirs of the founding families. Krystal's period of structural change and uncertainty in the late-1990s has led to a successfully re-born restaurant chain with high levels of reported customer satisfaction and an evolving menu.
Krystal's product line centers on a small, square hamburger called, simply enough, a "Krystal". Small hot dogs, named "pups" now also anchor the menu. The restaurant has since expanded its menu to include the "B.A. Burger," a full-size hamburger made of 100% black Angus meat. Krystal is known for a diverse breakfast menu, and now offers a limited but popular selection of chicken and salad items. Krystal continues to focus on its core menu products, but continues to redesign and upgrade its stores to appeal to a mobile and multi-tasking audience.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the chain served much of their food not in to-go containers but on inexpensive china labelled "Krystal." The waiters and waitresses wore white uniforms, and food was offered on a counter. Cake doughnuts were served as a breakfast and dessert item.
From about 1970 until 1986, fried chicken, coleslaw, potato salad, and rolls were offered. These items were usually sold from a small addition to the back of the hamburger restaurants. The chicken was introduced around the same time that singers Minnie Pearl and Mahalia Jackson entered the fried chicken business.
Krystal is one of the growing number of fast food restaurant chains offering free wireless internet access to customers with Wi-Fi compatible devices. Known as "The Krystal HotSpot", the service is nearly universally available at Krystal locations offering inside seating. The chain is also testing a prototype for a drive-in that features individual television monitors for ordering and watching television (audio is accessed via car stereo), and indoor and outdoor seating areas with multiple big-screen television monitors and free digital jukeboxes.
Krystals remain enormously popular in the South, especially in its East Tennessee "backyard". Fans are known to drive great distances to "get a Krystal" or pine for them when they're out of reach. Long time fans can show new patrons how to combine the boxes that Krystals come in to make Krystal houses. Krystal is a perennial favorite with college students, due to most (but not all) Krystal restaurants being open 24/7, making them a popular destination during late-night study sessions or while returning home from a party.
Frozen Krystal hamburgers are also available in supermarkets.
As of July 2006, Krystal has confirmed that they are expanding the chain into other Southern and Mid-Western states such as West Virginia and Missouri, respectively. The company also said they are expanding further into Virginia and Kentucky.
One of the restaurants was featured in a deleted scene in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006). Borat tries his best to be a conscientious employee but as always, manages to offend customers and employees alike.
John Anderson's song "Money in the Bank" contains the line, "Gonna take you to the Krystal and a picture show."