Putting digital payments where your mouth is

Computer DiningHere’s how my grandparents dined out:

They sat, ordered, ate, and, when the check arrived, gave the server cash. The server returned with change, hoping some or all of it would remain behind, thanks to America’s curious practice of underpaying servers and expecting diners to make up the difference.

By the time my parents were dining out, paying with cash had declined to the point of being almost quaint. It was more common to slap down a credit card. The server would return with a slip of paper sporting a blank for writing in a tip amount.

Now we have portable mag strip readers brought to your table by a server; tabletop tablets from which you can order, pay, and tip; and direct payment via the portable device of your choice.

McDonald’s even lets you use your portable device to order and pay before you leave home. Only upon your arrival at the store is your food prepared and your account charged. This gives you the convenience of waiting in a designated parking space instead of waiting a roughly equal amount of time at the drive-up window.

Of course, fast food vendors have long mounted card readers outside the drive-up window. Surely someone has used one sometime, but I’ve never witnessed it.

And now MasterCard has issued a press release boasting that in the U.K.,

Diners at Pizza Hut restaurants across the country will be able to pay through their mobile without having to ask a waiter for the bill, saving them 12 minutes on average.

The news packs a double surprise.

The lesser surprise is that it takes about 12 minutes to pay your Pizza Hut server the new old-fashioned way.

And the greater surprise? That there are still parts of the world with sit-down Pizza Hut restaurants. Such are all but a relic in the U.S.

Server-less payment comes to U.K. Pizza Huts via the MasterCard app Qkr with Masterpass. It is designed to make a cinch of “…splitting the bill at a restaurant, ordering food to your seat at the cinema, or pre-ordering your child’s lunch.”

Besides offering a customer convenience, tableside POS systems promise a profitability boost for the restaurant industry as a whole. It has to do with table turns, that is, how fast restaurateurs cycle diners. Hospitality Technology places the average time saved per table by tableside POS systems at about 10 minutes, suggesting that …

… Cutting down that wait time by bringing the payment device to the table not only leads to more table turns and increased face-time, but also higher customer satisfaction. The result is better tips for servers. We witnessed this firsthand in Canada, where Pay-at-the-Table became the standard shortly after that country’s EMV migration in 2010.

In The Benefits of Tableside POS for Restaurant Owners and Servers, FSR reports:

Deployment of tableside POS can help streamline the dining experience and even increase tip percentages for servers. Casual-dining chain Olive Garden has already adopted tableside payment systems and is pleased with the results. According to The Los Angeles Times, a spokesman for Olive Garden said wait staff using the payment tablets see a 15 percent increase in tips and turn over their tables seven to 10 minutes faster. A spokesperson told the newspaper, “Guests can set the pace of their meals by ordering drinks, appetizers, and desserts as they want them and pay their checks with ease whenever they are ready.”

It will be interesting to watch how speeding up table turns plays out in the U.K. Americans tend to associate good service with swiftness, such as the whisking away of plates no longer needed or wanted, the prompt sweeping away of breadcrumbs, frequent check-ins (“How is everything?”), dessert suggested mid-meal, and having the check arrive before you ask for it. Sometimes visitors from the U.K. find the swiftness and attention rude, as if they’re being hurried along. Which, in fact, they are.

Besides speedier table turns, the restaurant industry agrees that tableside POS systems reduce human error and chargebacks. Plus they benefit servers in the U.S. by providing suggested, percentage-based tip amounts (including zero as an option). The result has been what The New York Times referred to as “tip creep” in its 2015 article, “$3 Tip on a $4 Cup of Coffee? Gratuities Grow, Automatically.”

Digital payment has sped and improved restaurant pick-up and delivery services as well. Websites like Eat 24 let you order, pay, and tip online, so you needn’t wrestle with tipping at your front door while your food cools. Pick-up restaurants like Papa Murphy’s let you order and pay online so you can duck in, grab your take-and-bake pizza, and duck back out while others stand at the counter deciding whether they want extra cheese.

Unlike many industries where technology eliminates jobs, it seems the high-end restaurant business will always need servers. The burgeoning supply of hospitality apps makes the job more efficient but doesn’t obviate it. Smartphones can take orders and receive payment, but it will be a while before they can drape a napkin over their arm and, with a flourish, deliver a hot meal to the table.

Leave a Comment