We've all fallen victim to that period between finishing a meal and trying to flag down a harried and distracted waiter for the check. And some of us have also fallen victim to the estimated 70% of credit card skimming that happens at restaurants each year since it's one of the few transactions in which our cards leave our sight.
Viableware, a Seattle-based company of tech and restaurant veterans, is trying to make the experience as easy and secure as possible. Viableware makes a nondescript device called the RAIL, which is about the size and shape of the regular black book you'd normally get at the end of your meal. But the RAIL is powered by a mini-computer that lets guests at establishments pay for their food right at the table, at their leisure, without having to hand over a credit card to the waiter. It also supports different payment methods, including credit or debit cards, gift cards, and NFC mobile payments.
The RAILs, which are currently being piloted by establishments such as the Joie de Vivre Hotels in San Francisco and P.F. Chang's in Seattle, also come with useful features to make your dining experience more convenient. There's an auto-tip calculator that lets restaurants set percentages but also lets you leave a custom tip amount. There's a bill-splitting feature that lets you split the check up to nine different ways, either equally or by item (college kids, rejoice). And you can choose to get a copy of your receipt either via email or on paper.
Restaurants also have the option to load a host of different apps to their RAILs, just like you would to a smartphone. Some of the apps offered let you hail a cab to the restaurant; alert the valet service to bring your car around; Like the restaurant on Facebook; and use loyalty program points. They can even set a one-question "Rate your experience" survey to flash up after you've paid. If you answer below a certain satisfaction level, the RAIL will text the restaurant manager, who can then come and check up on you before you leave (so much for saving time).
In addition to convenience, Viableware is also trying to make the transaction experience safer for guests. When a credit card is swiped through the RAIL, it's encrypted instantaneously so the restaurant never has credit card information in their environment anymore. If someone were to hack into a restaurant's point-of-sale system, they would only be able to get their hands on a list of transaction numbers, not credit card numbers.
Viableware CEO Joe Snell tells Fast Company the credit card security is an attractive selling point for potential customers. Restaurants have historically had a problem meeting the security standards set by the payment card industry (otherwise known as Visa, MasterCard, Discover, and American Express), which often results in costly audit fees.
"Restaurants are just a nightmare as far as costs go because they’re so susceptible to thefts," he says. "Because we keep the card in the consumer’s hand and encrypt the data, we typically save a restaurant between $5,000 and $6,500 a year in PCI audit fees."
The RAIL can still collect a massive trove of data about you and your personal spending habits, even though it doesn't know who you are or store your specific credit card numbers. Restaurant people can already infer a lot about the kinds of people who go to Red Robin, or eat in a certain part of New York City. But the RAIL also knows what you’ve purchased in the past, and that opens the door to very targeted advertisements and offers that could show up on your RAIL after you've paid your bill. Snell gives an example: Say you frequent Red Robin with your kids, who you're always buying kid's meals and milkshakes. When you run my credit card through the RAIL, it'll know that, and perhaps you'll get an offer for a discount for 10% off at a nearby Disney store.
But Snell, who's rolling out the RAILs nationally in January 2013, is very intent on keeping that target ad experience as natural as possible.
"The restaurant industry very much understands those targeted ads can’t be intrusive or be an inconvenience," Snell says. "So they’re optional. All of this flashes up on the screen after you’ve paid your bill, so if you want, you can just shut the book and leave because you've already paid."
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Viableware saves restaurants an average of $5,000 to $65,000 in PCI audit fees. It is $5,000 to $6,500. Fast Company regrets the error.
[Image: Flickr user vxla]