Dining out? Let your phone pick up the check

Enduring the interminable wait for a check at a bar or restaurant is something akin to torture when you have places to go, friends to meet, or a long trek home ahead of you. Dash is a new app that lets you see and settle your tab straight from your smartphone, and while the app is only available at select New York lounges and eateries, Dash is part of a growing number of startups out to prove that mobile payments can make going out more fun.

I tested out Dash a few weeks ago at New York City seafood spot City Crab to see if settling a tab by phone is as easy as it sounds. If you have Bluetooth turned on, the app automatically checks you into a restaurant as you walk through the door. I didn’t, so I checked in manually. Then you tell your server that you’re paying with Dash. That’s pretty much the extent of the effort you have to put in—I had already stored my payment information in the app, so when I opened it up again at the end of the meal, I simply had to see if my bill was correct and choose a tip percentage.

I regularly use apps that make my life easier by letting me pick and pay for things without having to pull out a credit card, run to an ATM or, in the case of Seamless, without even leaving my house. But sometimes, when I’m not feeling like a bum, I like to go out. If I can enjoy a little human interaction while still paying for things by phone, like I can with Uber and Lyft when I need a ride, then I’m all for it. But apps like Dash face two challenges: Convincing restaurants that mobile payments make their jobs easier and getting users on board.

dash the royal

Dash is convincing New York City restaurant owners that mobile payments help them turn over tables faster.

Dine and dash

Dash isn’t the only app trying to use your phone to transform your dining experience. Cover and TabbedOut offer similar experiences, though each app has slightly different features and various partner restaurants on board.

Like Dash, Cover is currently only available in New York. Both apps are available on Android. The app has a slew of trendy Manhattan restaurants on board, including hot spots like Charlie Bird and Estela. The Austin-based TabbedOut has partner restaurants across the country.

opentable payment

OpenTable is testing its pilot payment program in San Francisco.

But the real giant is a company that no one associates with mobile payments—yet. In February, online reservation manager OpenTable started testing an in-app payment program at 13 restaurants in San Francisco. OpenTable already works with 31,000 restaurants seating 14 million people a month, so its relationships with restaurant owners are well-established. And because OpenTable handles a restaurant’s reservation and table management systems, which are integrated with the point-of-sale system that tells your server what table you’re sitting at and what you’ve ordered, there’s no extra work for you or your server when it comes time to pay.

“You don’t have to say, ‘I’m here for my reservation, and I’m going pay with a mobile payment,’” OpenTable spokeswoman Tiffany Cox told TechHive. “Behind the scenes, all this integration is happening.”

With other payment apps, you have to make sure to tell your server you’re paying with an app. OpenTable automatically flags your table so restaurant staffers know you might pay with the app. When you’ve paid, the table is flagged again—so no one chases after you with the check when you leave.

“We don’t want anyone to do anything different than they’re already doing,” Cox said.

OpenTable’s payment program has one limitation, though: You have to book a reservation at the restaurant on OpenTable in order to pay with the app when you wrap up your meal, which means you can’t experience the magic as a walk-in.

Now we wait

People are really excited about mobile payments. Our pocket computers are finally making our lives exponentially easier. According to a 2013 Forrester Research report, more than 60 percent of consumers want to pay for meals by phone. But the idea of going out to eat and not plunking down cash or cards is still pretty novel. Dash and Cover have yet to take on markets outside New York City. OpenTable stressed the test nature of its program.

starbucks tip

If people get used to paying for Starbucks with their phones, that could translate to higher-end dining.

But Forrester analyst Denée Carrington said OpenTable already has an advantage—it doesn’t have to convince restaurants to adopt a new app, like other payment services do.

“Part of the challenge [for these apps] is gaining scale—scale with both merchants and consumers,” Carrington said. “On the merchant side, it’s hard building a business going door-to-door. OpenTable is best positioned because they have so many merchant relationships already.”

Scale with users will happen as more people start finding out that they can settle a check with their phone, and get comfortable with the idea of walking out of a restaurant without paying the traditional way. Adoption also speeds up when big names like Starbucks get involved—the company in March updated its app to let you add a tip for your baristas straight from your phone. Starbucks has been getting its customers used to the idea of paying by phone. That could translate to dining experiences that are a little fancier than coffee and a snack.

“Mobile payments in the U.S. are going to be an evolution,” Carrington said. “It’s the type of thing where consumers will begin to encounter more merchants that are encouraging, accepting, and promoting mobile payments. They’ll test it out and decide whether it works for them and in what circumstance. It might work for you at Starbucks, but it might not work as well for you at a restaurant.”

This story updated to reflect that Dash is also available for Android.

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