Monday, November 14, 2011

Getting the restaurant industry out of the Stone Age

It looks like the idea I've been talking about for years is finally catching on. (Too bad I have no technical skill, or I might be rich by now. Well, I can think that, anyway.)

Anyone who has been to a restaurant or bar with a large group knows what a monumental ordeal it is to settle the tab at the end of the evening when various parties are paying separately.

If the server is nice, he or she will split the tab for the group. (A good server will ask in advance.) Even if that does happen, the group almost always produces a small treasury worth of credit cards and cash, with the somewhat ridiculous notion that the server will be able to:
  • Apply the correct methods of payment to the correct tabs without making a mistake;
  • Remember who requested change, among those who are paying with cash, and provide the correct amounts without making a mistake;
  • Do this all in a reasonable amount of time, while ignoring other patrons.
If the server isn't nice — or if the restaurant's policies suck — the group is left to settle one giant bill, while ensuring that no one got double-charged for an item and that everyone is contributing a fair amount. This is where the inconvenient borders on the absurd. The solution usually involves members of the group writing their initials beside specific items on the check to indicate which credit card should be charged for that item. Of course, figuring out appropriate tax and tip for each person — and for the group as a whole — is an entirely separate battle.

In this age of technological advancements, I've always been perplexed as to why we still put up with such a hassle — and why no solution has caught on. People love to go out to eat. They love to go out to eat in groups. Yet in 2011, our method of closing out dining tabs is still a throwback to the era of no smartphones or Internet.

It would be as though we still bothered to call the airlines to check flight schedules and book reservations, rather than simply doing so online, even though the technology is there.

Or if we still insisted on using phone books to look up the address and phone number of a business, when we could simply consult Google.

So why, oh why, do we still use pens and paper to split our tabs at the bar? Pull out those Androids and iPhones, people!

The application I'm talking about works almost exactly how I envisioned after getting fed up with the nightmare of paying for food and drinks as part of a group. When you arrive, you simply find the establishment on your phone and open a tab there. Then, the application provides a code number that you show to your server, which is used to keep track of your ordered items. Whenever you want to close the tab, you do so using an encrypted credit card number that the application stores on your phone. Not once do you need to pull out your wallet. (Presumably, you could still pay cash, simply by handing the money to your server at the same time you close your tab on the application.)

Some establishments that use this program allow users to split tabs with others. Even if they don't, it would still work wonders. You could simply pay separately from the group, using the application, and watch contentedly while others at your table struggle with the 1985 method of settling the bill.

The benefits of such an application go far beyond eliminating hassle. It saves paper and time, meaning that establishments could provide better service, and customers wouldn't have to wait forever. It reduces the potential for error. Perhaps most importantly, you'd no longer have to hand over your credit card, where it could end up in the wrong hands.

It isn't perfect, of course. The program can't become commonplace until a majority of restaurant-goers carry smartphones, which means that most establishments probably won't bother with it for the time being. But if you are an iPhone or Android user, you can look up restaurants and bars near you that use the technology right now.

I love to rip on smartphones (and the ways that people use them). But this may just be the application that persuades me to get one.

1 comment:

  1. As you say, a good waiter/waitress will ask in advance whether separate checks are preferred when a group is seated in a restaurant. I agree that it is a nightmare to divide up a bill after-the-fact. I usually end up feeling that I overpaid because I'm over-zealous about taking any risk of under-paying. The smart phone is still outside the boundaries of my technological comfort zone. However, so was the i-pod a few years ago and now it's close to being a body part.