Fizz or Fixture? Pay-at-Table's Staying Power in the Restaurant Industry

Fizz or Fixture? Pay-at-Table's Staying Power in the Restaurant Industry

Mark Beresford
May 1, 2024

Fizz or Fixture? Pay-at-Table's Staying Power in the Restaurant Industry

Pay-at-table (PAT) is a technology that allows restaurant guests to settle their bills directly at their tables without needing to wait for a server or visit a separate checkout desk. This can significantly improve both the customer experience and the restaurant's operational efficiency. In this article we examine the different solutions available on the market and determine whether this is a feature that restaurant guests will continue to see or whether it was just a fad that happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The advantages of Pay-at-Table.

PAT technology offers several advantages to restaurants, but it might not be a perfect fit for them all. Fast casual dining chains that prioritise speed and convenience, will deploy pay-at-table as it aligns perfectly with their model. Faster checkout translates to quicker table turnover and potentially higher revenue. Some examples include Chipotle, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, Pizza Express and Wagamama.

For more upscale restaurants that often cater to a tech-savvy clientele, who appreciate the ease and control offered by pay-at-table, the solution is also a perfect fit. It can also enhance the overall dining experience. Also, for establishments with high table turnover, such as bars, cafés and pubs, pay-at-table can significantly improve efficiency and reduce wait times during peak hours. Sports bars, casual pubs, brewery taprooms, Brew Dog and Wetherspoons are a few examples where order-at-table and pay-at-table is being implemented or piloted.

PAT technology involves minimal hardware investment, meaning means it has a more accessible adoption compared to purchasing dedicated handheld terminals. It also often allows for easier splitting of bills amongst patrons which once again reduces wait times and improves efficiency. The result of this is often a high customer satisfaction.

Four very different pay-at-table experiences.

There are four PAT solutions that are commonly deployed in the food and beverage sector, as illustrated below:

Mobile POS device.

One common pay-at-table option for many restaurants is to have a mobile POS device that is connected wirelessly to a network to process the payment. This is typically achieved through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connectivity. Bluetooth allows for a short-range connection between the mobile POS device and a nearby base station connected to the internet. Wi-Fi offers a wider range and can connect directly to the internet if available.

QR Code printed on paper check.

QR codes printed on a restaurant bill are another option for pay-at-table.  Functionally they work through a combination of mobile technology and secure payment processing. The customer uses their smartphone camera app to scan the QR code printed on the bill, which decodes the information embedded in the code. This QR code would then launch the restaurant's dedicated mobile app for payment, or alternatively to a secure payment gateway webpage accessible through any mobile browser.  Regardless of the platform (app or webpage), the customer enters their payment information (credit card details, mobile wallet credentials, etc.) securely within the designated platform. The payment gateway securely transmits the information to the restaurant's payment processor for authorisation and settlement. The restaurant's point-of-sale (POS) system might receive a notification confirming the payment, potentially updating the order status, or marking the bill as paid.

QR Code on the table.

QR codes placed directly on restaurant tables can serve various purposes beyond just paying the bill. The most common functionalities include accessing the Restaurant Menu – this became very popular during the COVID-19 pandemic when lock-down restrictions meant that sharing printed menus was not an option. When scanned with a smartphone camera, the QR code directs customers to the restaurant's online menu, typically hosted on a mobile-friendly website or within the restaurant's app (if they have one). This allows customers to browse the menu at their own pace, potentially including detailed descriptions, high-resolution photos of dishes, and allergen information.

Another popular use case that came into play during the pandemic, and can still be seen today, is online ordering at the table. The QR code on the restaurant’s table might link to an online ordering platform. This allows customers to place their orders directly from their phones, potentially customising dishes and adding special requests. This can streamline the ordering process, especially for busy casual dining restaurants.

Some restaurants might use the table QR code for payment. This functionality overlaps the QR code that could be printed on the bill, which can potentially cause confusion amongst some customers. It is more common to have a separate code specifically for bill payments. However, where the table QR code initiates the payment, there needs to be a bespoke integration with the restaurant's POS system to match the bill and the table.

Consumer App.

The fourth pay-at-table solution involves a consumer app which can be used to pay at the table in restaurants, and it's becoming an increasingly popular option. There are two main approaches for the consumer app – the dedicated restaurant app and third-party payment app.

Many restaurants have developed their own mobile apps that allow customers to not only browse menus and potentially order food, but also pay their bills directly at the table. These apps typically integrate with the restaurant's point-of-sale system, which guarantees a seamless communication between the app and the restaurant's internal operations. The two leading players, in terms of the number of restaurant locations, is McDonalds and Starbucks. There are many other smaller restaurants chains, bars and cafés, too many to mention here, that offer their own branded customer app that mimic what McDonalds and Starbucks are doing. Both restaurant apps allow users to browse the menu, order and customise food, and pay-at-table using their saved payment information. They also offer features like mobile ordering for pickup or drive-thru, loyalty rewards program, and exclusive deals.

Third Party Consumer Apps and the Sunday Story.

What is of particular interest is the rise of third-party consumer app. This is where some restaurants have allowed customers to pay-at-table using popular third-party payment apps such as “Sunday”. Sunday is a start-up that was born out of the pandemic and attracted a lot of headlines at the time. It raised $24 million in seed round funding and at one point attracted a $140 million valuation. Sunday is a spin-off company, incorporated in the U.S, from a restaurant business called Big Mamma who operate several restaurants across France, UK, Germany, and Italy. The restaurant company wanted to offer a way to check the menu and pay without touching anything. Like many restaurants, they put QR codes on the tables to that customers can scan them with their phones and load a website.

But Sunday didn’t stop at the menu. It also connects directly to the cash register system. Sunday supports Oracle Micros, Toast, Zonal, Lightspeed, Tissl, Clover, Tiller, Revo, CashPad, and many more. This way, customers can also scan the QR code, check their tab and pay directly from their phone. When they’re done eating, they can pay by themselves, stand up and leave.

After trying Sunday across the Big Mamma restaurants, the company saw some encouraging results. 80% of customers chose to pay using the QR code, which means that restaurants saved 15 minutes in wait time on average leading to a better table turnover rate. The Sunday app also unlocks some new possibilities, for instance, guests can split the bill directly at the table — everyone loads up Sunday and pays. Sunday is based on QR codes right now, but the company isn’t attached to QR codes specifically. You could imagine loading your bill using NFC, or RFID, or Bluetooth, etc.

At Sunday, the vision is clear, they want to build a fast checkout for restaurants. Today, there are over 4,000 different restaurant businesses signed up to Sunday – mainly in the UK, France, and the North America. During 2022 & 2023 Sunday had to pause its operations in certain markets, such as Italy and Spain, where it had a significant number of clients. Let’s hope this is a small bump in the road to continued growth. Sunday has now gone beyond Pay-at-Table, with a long list of solutions including Smart Terminals (partnered with PAX), Order & Pay, Click & Collect, Pre-ordering, Pre-payment, loyalty, tips booster, staff app, accounting software integration, end of shift reporting, business analytics, etc.

Who will win in the pay-at-table game.

At Edgar, Dunn & Company (EDC) we see the future of pay-at-table solutions is likely to see three main themes playing out in the next few years. Firstly, increased PAT adoption, secondly, innovation, and finally, there will be PAT integration with a broader set of restaurant technologies. The QR code will be a fixture that is integral to many of the pay-at-table solutions, and we believe it is here to stay. Most restaurant guests have a phone with a camera, and as customers become accustomed to the ease and speed of pay-at-table options, their adoption is expected to rise significantly across various restaurant categories. POS hardware, such as the traditional POS device, will gradually disappear from a wide range of casual dining restaurants.  

For this year and beyond, we expect pay-at-table solutions to be used to enhance customer engagement through personalised offers, loyalty programs, and targeted marketing campaigns. By leveraging data analytics and customer insights, businesses can better understand their patrons' preferences and tailor their offerings accordingly.

As we all experienced during the global pandemic, there was an accelerated adoption of contactless payment methods, and this trend is expected to continue in the future. Pay-at-table solutions that support contactless payments, such as mobile wallets and NFC technology with SoftPOS enabled devices, are likely to become more prevalent, offering convenience and peace of mind to both customers and businesses. QR codes that initiates an instant payment, via Open Banking solutions, or an account-to-account (A2A) payment are also expected to overtake traditional card payments as restaurants realise the economic benefits of A2A payments instead of accepting more expensive credit cards.    

Overall, the future of pay-at-table solutions is likely to be characterised by innovation, convenience, and enhanced customer experiences as businesses strive to meet the evolving needs and expectations of consumers. At EDC we work with both payment service providers and retailers to build the best customer experience. If you want to know more, please do not hesitate to contact EDC or the author.

The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of Edgar, Dunn & Company.

The information and views expressed in this publication belong solely to the author(s).

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