During a recent trip to Japan, Julian Hakim experienced something new while staying three nights at the posh Aman Hotel Tokyo.
When he went to breakfast, he didn’t see a check.
When he completed dinner, he didn’t see a check.
“It felt weird, but also seamless and luxurious,” Hakim says of the checkless dining ingrained in Aman’s operations.
And also undeniably intriguing.
“After all, no one likes paying the check [at the end of a meal],” says Hakim, co-founder of Shōwa Hospitality, the San Diego-based restaurant consortium behind acclaimed concepts like La Jolla, California’s Himitsu and Mexico City’s Rokai.
With that harmonious experience rumbling around Hakim’s mind, the veteran restaurateur continues contemplating a future in which Shōwa might similarly eliminate the customary end-of-meal check at its full-service restaurants.
“It’s a transition I’d like to see happen,” Hakim says. “We just need to figure it out.”
Addressing a pain point
The traditional payment process at restaurants remains one of dining’s lingering pain points. Nearly one-third of respondents to the 2018 Restaurant Payments study from merchant services provider TSYS reported having a previous dining experience ruined by a payment incident, often something slow or inefficient.
In the Uber-ized era of invisible payments, an age in which consumers are growing increasingly accustomed to payments happening behind a digital curtain, the status quo at restaurants seems particularly outdated.
Though no step in the restaurant payments process—requesting the check, receiving the check, providing a credit card or cash, and then waiting for the server to return with a receipt to sign or the requisite change – is particularly arduous, the collective endeavor seems more time-consuming and layered than necessary in these digitally charged times.
“People want to pay their bill and get out,” says Jon Squire, CEO of CARDFREE, a leading mobile wallet provider to large merchants.
Yet despite the fast-evolving world of payments technology, the flood of mobile wallet solutions, and the appeal of a more user-friendly, frictionless, and secure payments experience, checkless dining is far from ubiquitous.
In recent years, numerous startups have emerged to simplify restaurant payments and inject an Uber-like experience into the dining room.
With Boston-based paerpay, for instance, guests download the paerpay app and scan a code on their restaurant table. The paerpay system is integrated with the restaurant’s POS. It then allows the customer to review and pay the bill the moment they wish to leave, which spurs a faster, more convenient experience for diners and helps restaurants accelerate table turns and improve server efficiency.
Though compelling technology for consumers as well as restaurants, these dreamy-eyed startups – paerpay, Split, and PaidEasy among them – have thus far struggled to gain widespread traction.
Even some entrenched companies seemingly well positioned to streamline restaurant payments have struggled to make inroads.
In 2014, OpenTable introduced mobile payments that allowed diners in San Francisco to pay for their meal via the OpenTable app at participating restaurants. Two years later, OpenTable’s House Accounts platform tied guests’ payment information directly to their reservation.
While OpenTable declined to provide any current details about its invisible payments efforts, there’s little indication that any of Open-Table’s invisible payment functionalities have resonated with diners on a universal level.
Meanwhile, Resy, one of Open-Table’s most notable competitors and another tech-savvy outfit seemingly primed to advance checkless dining, “does not offer [invisible payment] functionalities at this time,” spokesperson Lauren Young confirms.
Then, there’s Tock, the restaurant ticketing system pioneered by esteemed Chicago restaurateur Nick Kokonas. Shōwa Hospitality actually uses Tock at Hiden, its high-end omakase concept located in Miami. To access one of Hiden’s eight seats and the 15-course sushi experience handcrafted by Chef Tadashi Shiraishi, diners first book a $150 per person ticket on Tock. That fee, however, only covers the food. At the conclusion of the meal, guests receive a check accounting for drinks and taxes as well as a service charge.
“We thought about including wine pairings, tax, and other fees in the [initial booking on Tock], but people want different things,” Hakim says about his group’s reluctance to create a fully invisible payments experience at Hiden.
Lingering out there as well remains the very real promise of biometric payments fueled by facial recognition or fingerprints.
Global banking giant BBVA, for example, continues developing invisible payment methods to expedite the checkout process, including options propelled by biometrics. At cafeterias and restaurants inside Ciudad BBVA, the company’s Madrid headquarters, diners can now pay for their purchases simply by looking into a camera.
BBVA spokesperson Teresa Alameda says the corporation’s current invisible payments strategy remains focused on Europe with no specific plans to enter the U.S. market. Still, Alameda says the company keeps its options open while aiming to “lead the development of frictionless payments.”
Bringing invisible payments mainstream
In its Future In-store Retail Technologies: Adoption, Implementation & Strategy 2017-2022 report, Juniper Research forecasts more than $78 billion in invisible payment transactions occurring by 2022. The number represents a nearly eight-fold jump from 2017 and Juniper’s analysts say the surge will be fueled by swelling consumer interest in a more seamless experience and restaurants’ desire to deliver exactly that.
“Restaurants see an opportunity to provide a better, more secure customer experience and ultimately increase customer satisfaction, efficiency, and long-term loyalty and sales,” TSYS executive vice president of integrated merchant solutions Henry Helgeson says of checkless dining. “Diners see it as a faster, more secure, and novel payment method.”
With movement toward retail experiences like Amazon Go, the internet giant’s brick-and-mortar stores that eschew checkout lines in favor of sensors and cameras that automatically charge shoppers, increasing consumer comfort with invisible payments technology in the coming years could promote a new normal that forces restaurants to keep pace.
“Merchants are the most important part of the equation and literally where the buck stops,” Squire says.
And for restaurants, there are certainly benefits to embracing checkless dining.
With CARDFREE, for example, restaurant owners can add on elements such as advance ordering, catering, delivery, and mobile waitlists. Restaurants can also minimize cash handling concerns, collect more guest data to refine customer service, and boost staff efficiency.
As a restaurateur, Hakim says he’s attracted to invisible payments’ potential to reduce costs and heighten efficiency.
“There’s a labor cost to ringing up customers, and it also slows down the line, so I love anything that saves me money,” he says.
Yet more, TSYS Restaurant Payments study found that 32 percent of diners would reconsider dining at an establishment based on its payment technology – a figure that suggests the payments process can be a possible differentiator for restaurants.
Such compelling potential prompts Squire to predict that invisible payments will become commonplace in 3-5 years.
“There’s no way it’s going backwards,” he says.
Yet, pioneering a new experience that removes the traditional payment process and buries it below a trusted – and that’s an important word here given the handling of consumers’ personal and financial information – technological platform won’t necessarily be easy.
With the recent advancements in deep learning, Ruslan Pisarenko, CEO of Finland-based UNIQUL Oy, a leading payment systems provider, says restaurants could provide diners iPad-sized devices that enable them to select their meals and pay by face instantly. But customers would still need to enroll in the restaurant, either by swiping a credit card on the device or signing up on a mobile app and then scanning a barcode to upload one’s personal profile.
Furthermore, Pisarenko isn’t convinced restaurants will choose biometric payments over something like mobile apps with geofencing.
“Restaurants are mainly interested in attracting new customers with [the] lowest costs possible, so geofencing would have a priority as it does not require restaurants to invest in iPads [or] face-recognition technology,” he says.
Similarly, Helgeson cites restaurant implementation, not consumer adoption, as the biggest hurdle to checkless dining’s mainstream arrival, specifically educating restaurant owners about the ease with which such systems might be incorporated.
“Consumers are ready for greater security, convenience, and more payment options, but restaurants will have to upgrade their technology first,” Helgeson says. “Restaurants with complicated and costly POS systems may be especially reluctant to make this investment because of the hardware and training costs involved.”
Helgeson says the emergence of “in-between” solutions such as Uber Eats are promising as they allow restaurants to offer new options without significant investment.
“If more of these apps are introduced [into] the marketplace, it will make it much easier to bring checkless options to more people,” Helgeson says.
Reflecting on his experience at Aman, Hakim says he also had to trust the hotel wasn’t overreaching, especially as he never saw a dining check over multiple days.
“There’s a real question if people, so accustomed to reviewing the check, are ready for this,” he says. “Some education will certainly need to happen.”
Though some adoption hurdles remain, Hakim nevertheless sees invisible payments hitting the mainstream – and sooner rather than later.
“When the right software comes out and the trust is there, we’ll be able to eliminate one of the ugliest parts of dining out,” he says.