We’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: in today’s pandemic-stricken restaurant industry, restaurant tech companies have to fight hard to stay relevant, and only those solutions that can help restaurants make their digital operations truly efficient will be left once the fallout is over.
CardFree, a company based in San Francisco and something of a restaurant tech vet, is hoping to make the transition to digital easier for restaurants. The company makes an all-in-one mobile merchant platform that integrates digital ordering and payments, coupons, and loyalty programs into a restaurant’s existing setup. It also offers a pay-at-the-table function that uses a customer’s own mobile device, rather than a tabletop kiosk (aka germ repository). It also recently added a new way for customers to process payments — not through any earth-shattering new technology but via some good old-fashioned SMS messaging with its new text-to-pay function.
The company was founded in 2012, a time when the concept of mobile payments via a smartphone was first gaining attention and many wondered if the credit card would disappear entirely. It didn’t. In fact, CardFree’s CEO and cofounder Jon Squire told me over the phone this week that the company saw “early resistance” even to pay-at-the-table concepts, where a user processed the payment themselves instead of handing over a credit card.
As global health crises do, though, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Digital orders were up 63 percent in March, according to NPD Group, and one recent survey found that 73 percent of consumers ordering takeout and delivery said they would be more inclined to get takeout (over delivery) if the experience were contactless. Meanwhile, the National Restaurant Association’s restaurant reopening guidelines clearly state that “Contactless payment systems, automated ordering systems, mobile ordering apps, website updates and simple texts can help you to communicate and conduct business with reduced need for close contact.”
CardFree’s platform is one of many out there offering tools to make the restaurant experience more contactless. A restaurant can choose one or more of the technologies the company offers (mobile ordering, payments, etc.) and add to the stack over time. Squire said that of all the technologies out there, mobile ordering itself is probably the most important one for restaurants to add right now, though in terms of a solution, “You’re going to want something you can expand.”
As I mentioned above, that expansion might include some SMS messaging. CardFree has launched what it calls a pay-to-text feature, where customers call in a to-go order and can receive a link via SMS to pay for their meal. This is less cumbersome than reading a credit card number over the phone, and more sanitary than passing one between customer and cashier at the actual restaurant.
“Almost all the folks we’re working with are taking the person’s cell phone number as part of the order process,” says Squire. Once the phone number hits CardFree’s system (which is integrated with the restaurant POS), the user receives a text with a link they can click through to pay using Apple or Google Pay or their credit card:
Squire said that of the restaurants he’s talked to, many still see “about 60 percent” of orders placed ahead of time come via a phone call to the restaurant, not placed through a digital property like a mobile app. Finding a way to make the telephone experience more contactless from start to finish will be important going forward. That said, not many restaurant tech solutions pushing “contactless” bundles currently offer any kind of feature that addresses phone orders. That gives CardFree something of a leading edge here.
Squire doesn’t necessarily believe the pandemic and seismic shifts in the restaurant biz will render the credit card obsolete, as some have suggested. Of going “card free,” he said “Doing it’s our name and we’ve been doing it for 10 years and [credit cards] still exist. I’m reticent to say they’ll go away.”
Regardless, restaurants will need to go more digital, even if they’re accepting credit cards. And to help make that possible for cash-strapped businesses that are currently lucky to keep the lights on, CardFree has been giving away its products for free for small-to mid-sized independent restaurants. While there is technically a three-month time stamp on the free period, Squire suggests that’s a fluid deadline where certain restaurants are concerned. For CardFree, which has historically worked with enterprise-level brands, this is a way of helping the whole restaurant industry stay afloat, not just mainstream chains.
As Squire said, “It’s been helpful to know [we’re] doing something to push this in the right direction.”