Mobile apps for paying the tab, browsing beers

Consumers to see proliferation of mobile payment technology

  • Victoria's Gastro Pub offers customers an iPad for use in browsing the beer and wine menus. Here, customer Kevin McMullen of Columbia browses through the beer selection. Jason Gotcher, manager, is on left; Bill McMullen is in the background.
Victoria's Gastro Pub offers customers an iPad for use… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
May 16, 2011|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

You finished dessert a while ago but haven't been able to catch the waiter's eye. Asking for the check will produce only another wait. And when you do get the opportunity to pay, you're still left sitting at your table until the waiter returns with your change or the credit card receipt.

It's the endgame to many restaurant meals. Now a Maryland technology company is trying to send it the way of the rotary phone.

MICROS Systems Inc. of Columbia, which makes point-of-sale terminal equipment for restaurants, has partnered with a Texas startup to expand the use of Tabbedout, an app that enables diners to pay with their smartphones.

The companies' goal? To let people settle their checks when they're ready to leave, reduce table turnaround times and encourage online interactions between customers and restaurants.

The app is rolling out at Houlihan's in Columbia, one of two restaurants in Maryland where patrons may now pay their bills on their iPhone or Android mobile phones. With MICROS now promoting the service to its thousands of restaurant clients, hundreds more businesses are expected to offer it by the end of the year.

"I think it's a brilliant plan," said Julie Stevens, the restaurant owner. "I, as a consumer, would love it."

With the rise of smartphones, mobile apps and more powerful wireless technologies, high-tech startups, credit card companies, and hardware and software firms are working to revolutionize the restaurant experience, with tablet computer menus and mobile payments.

"As much as this is going to benefit operators and consumers, we're also going to watch a culture change," said Tim Pincelli, director of products and training at MICROS. "It's about changing the way people do business in restaurants."

Nationwide, the restaurant industry pulls in about $600 billion in annual sales, according to the National Restaurant Association. But only a tiny fraction of the nation's 960,000 restaurants have adopted wireless technologies such as smartphones, handheld credit card scanners and tablet computers.

Consumers, however, are a little further along. A nationwide household survey commissioned last year by the restaurant association found about one-third of frequent restaurant patrons use Facebook. One in 12 uses mobile phone applications such as Foursquare and UrbanSpoon, which help people find and interact with restaurants.

The notion of using a smartphone as a digital wallet has been around for years. Generally, the mobile payment industry has focused on two technologies to enable the transfer of money — with the second still in its infancy in the United States.

The first is a text-messaging system, in which a consumer uses a text code to buy an item, and the charge is added to the user's monthly cellphone bill.

A new type of mobile payment system that industry observers expect to ramp up this year involves a wireless technology known as near-field communication, or NFC. Mobile phones would come equipped with a new chip, which would allow consumers to simply wave their phones in front of an NFC wireless reader. The consumer's credit card would then automatically be charged.

Consumers can expect to see plenty of competition in mobile payments. Major players eyeing the technology include PayPal, Google and Apple, in addition to credit card companies.

Visa, the largest credit card processor in the United States, announced last week that it is developing its own mobile wallet system that will use NFC and other technologies. The plans call for enabling people to use their mobile wallets at retail locations and even to transfer funds between people.

Few phones now on the market are outfitted with NFC technology. Observers say it could take several years for the technology to gain widespread acceptance among retail establishments and the technology hardware and software business.

Until then, making mobile payments through a smartphone app may be the next best thing. MICROS officials said the Tabbedout app, which is built by ATX Innovation Inc. of Austin, Texas, makes sense in many restaurant settings.

NFC technology, they say, in many cases would require diners to hand their smartphones to a waiter to swipe at a terminal.

Plus, the Tabbedout app allows customers to broadcast their restaurant choices to social networks such as Twitter, Facebook and Foursquare, which means free publicity for venues. So far, Tabbedout has been deployed in about 200 restaurants in 90 U.S. cities. MICROS expects to introduce the application to 50 to 100 restaurants a month, according to company officials.

"We see ourselves as complementary to [NFC] technologies as they emerge," said Rick Orr, chief executive officer of ATX. "We're able to accelerate people's acceptance of their smartphone as a mobile wallet."

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