The smartphone has already reached deep into the restaurant industry. Reservation systems like OpenTable and Yelp’s SeatMe allow customers to reserve tables without ever making a phone call. Diners can locate and review restaurants with apps like Yelp and Urbanspoon. And now the smartphone’s newfound tie to consumers’ wallets through mobile payment has it primed for even more influence in the industry.

Already, fast-casual and quick-service brands were leading the way with mobile pay and specially created apps. But industry observers say full-service restaurants are now gearing up for big plays with mobile payments—acceleration prompted in part by the launch of Apple Pay. In September, Apple announced that its new models, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, would feature contact-free payments thanks to a built-in near field communication antenna, which allows customers to instantly pay without ever touching their wallets.

The change comes at a time when retailers are already considering upgrading credit card terminals as the clock ticks toward October 2015, when merchants will assume liability for fraudulent purchases unless they are compliant with Europay, Mastercard, and Visa (EMV) standards. The EMV transition will require chip-and-pin cards—and card readers—rather than the current standard of magnetic stripe cards.

“There’s a lot of change in the marketplace right now with EMV and Apple Pay,” says Norm Merritt, president and CEO of ShopKeep, a cloud-based point-of-sale (POS) provider used by more than 10,000 small businesses.

Apple changed how consumers listen to music, how they think about computing, and how they use the smartphone, Merritt says. So its entrance into mobile pay shouldn’t be ignored. “I think if anybody has the capacity of getting this adopted, it’s Apple,” Merritt says. “The company has timed its entrance in an interesting way.”

With Apple Pay, customers’ iPhones wirelessly connect with a merchant’s near field communication antenna to transfer money. The process uses three levels of authentication, meaning merchants don’t ever acquire credit card data. Plus, an Apple Pay transaction takes only about 10 seconds, Merritt says, while a traditional credit card transaction can take 20 to 25 seconds.

“You don’t have to print out a receipt,” he adds. “You don’t have to sign anything.”

Scott Holt, vice president of marketing and solutions at mobile POS provider ROAM, says this transition means restaurants should try to be as inclusive as possible, offering multiple payment methods and even multiple mobile pay options.

“If a consumer wants to pay with mobile payment, then why not let them do that? If a consumer wants to pay with credit or cash, let them do it,” Holt says. “It’s all about consumer demand.”


Washington, D.C.’s Del Campo restaurant is still feeling out mobile payments. After relying on OpenTable for reservations for months, the South American grill opted into OpenTable’s mobile payment solution in the fall. OpenTable allows customers to pay on their smartphones at the table through Apple Pay or by using a credit card on file in their app profile.

OpenTable reservations were already responsible for more than half of Del Campo’s business, says Chef/owner Victor Albisu, adding that so far, only a handful of customers pay on their phones each night.

“I think a lot of people still don’t know about it,” he says. “This is basically the future of dining. It’s a less intrusive way to finalize your meal.”

With mobile payments, diners can pay their bill and leave as they please without waiting for the check. Chef Albisu says this means servers must adjust their style a bit.

“As the service professional, you have certain ways of ending a meal and delivering a check. It does kind of cut you off, so you have to rework your way of doing things, your way of expressing yourself,” he says. “We focus a lot on hospitality and gratitude for our patrons, so we want to make sure we express that—usually, at the time of the presentation of the check. Now, we have to be a little more proactive about it.”

Searching for the Mobile Pay Leader in Full Service

Tech companies agree that the full-service segment generally lags behind the quick-service and fast-casual worlds when it comes to mobile ordering and payment systems. Starbucks is considered a standard bearer for its app that houses both a mobile payment option as well as the brand’s loyalty program. But with lower frequency and less need for speed than on the quick-service side of things, it’s difficult for full-serves to ask their customers to download custom apps, experts say.

Some casual-dining chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s have responded by offering mobile payments in the form of tabletop tablets that allow customers to order, pay, and play at the table. But there’s no consensus among full-serves about which platform or vendor is best. Apple, credit card companies, and other technology vendors are all trying to get a piece of the mobile payment pie. And full-service restaurants are increasingly looking toward mobile payment systems as a means to collect valuable data on customers that will inform their marketing.

“Because it’s so fragmented, a lot of technology companies see opportunity there,” says Jackie Rodriguez, a senior manager at foodservice consultancy Technomic. “Right now there’s no dominant player. The field is open for someone to establish themselves as a leader.”

For now, many are looking at Apple’s entrance as a sign of its future command over mobile payments, if for no other reason than its dominance in other tech sectors.

“If Apple decides everyone’s going to use their phones to pay for things,” Rodriguez says, “then we’re going to use our phones to pay for things.”

Seth Priebatsch, founder and CEO of LevelUp, one of the nation’s largest mobile payment networks, says Apple’s entrance definitely got the attention of full-service operators. “That has signaled to the full-service environment that this is going to be the future, this is something you’re going to want to offer,” he says. “But I also think there’s still a fair amount of uncertainty as to how that mobile interaction occurs at full-serves.”

About 95 percent of LevelUp’s clients are in the fast-casual or quick-service segments, Priebatsch says, though more full-service concepts are coming on board. Historically, the company has had to convince restaurants that mobile payment is coming, and then show them how the data and convenience it includes could be beneficial.

“Now, the first part of that conversation is almost a given,” he says.

The problem, observers say, is full-service concepts can’t decide on the best route to open up mobile payments. Full-serves have no central register or counter where customers pay, leaving them to decide between tabletop tablets, servers who bring antenna-ready devices to the table to connect with diner’s phones, or consumer apps.

While we think we’ve nailed the fast-casual and quick-serve user experience, we’re not sure exactly what the perfect full-service experience is yet,” Priebatsch says. “The fact that we’re not sure is probably echoed in the full-service industry in general.”

Feature, Technology