TORONTO - Torontonians are being encouraged to dine and dash at a growing number of top restaurants — if they have the right app installed on their smartphones.
The made-in-Toronto Tab Payments app frees restaurant patrons from having to wait for the bill at the end of their meals; they can get up and go at their leisure.
But they still have to pay for their food and drinks.
Users register a credit card with the Tab app and set a default tip. They check into a restaurant when they arrive and input whether they're splitting the bill with other Tab users or plan on covering the whole thing. Then they're free to leave their table anytime, with the restaurant billing their account once they're gone.
"It feels kind of liberating not having to wait for the bill, waiting for a bill at a busy restaurant can almost seem like you're shackled to that restaurant when you want to get up and go," says Tab co-founder Adam Epstein.
"Right now at the end of your meal there's a lot of fumbling around with a wireless terminal, if you're splitting the bill among six people it can turn into an eight-to-10 minute process."
There's an increasingly crowded market of apps offering the same service in the U.S., including eBay-owned PayPal, OpenTable and startups Cover, Dash and TabbedOut.
The market is still nascent in Canada.
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Tab and PayPal are offering mobile-based payments at a few dozen restaurants in Toronto, but haven't expanded to other cities yet. With the exception of one restaurant so far, PayPal's app still requires that diners ask for the bill and manually go through the payment process.
Tab's functionality is also not as advanced as what's seen down south.
For instance, when Tab users are sent a digital copy of their bill post-meal, the receipt isn't itemized, and is only broken down into subtotals for food and drinks, tax and tip. Some of the other mobile payments apps allow users to see their bill get updated in real-time during their visit. If Tab users want to see their bill in detail, they still need to ask for a paper copy before they leave.
Epstein says users can't see exactly what they ordered within the Tab app because the point-of-sale technology used by most Canadian restaurants doesn't yet support that feature.
But he thinks users won't be deterred by that flaw — which he hopes will eventually get fixed — and expects mobile payments are ready to take off.
"We saw mobile payments were right on the cusp of being — I don't want to say a mainstream behaviour — but it was definitely right in that gap between extreme early-adopter niche and mainstream," Epstein says.
"There were other companies that tried this three or four years ago and frankly, it was too early then. Timing is something that's very, very important in marketing disruptive products to consumers ... So I think a lot of really smart companies —maybe us included — kind of identified now as the right time."
Restaurants, too, seem eager to get on board.
This week, the mammoth Real Sports Bar and Grill — which won international acclaim when ESPN named it the best sports bar in North America — was set to begin accepting Tab.
Epstein is hoping to expand Tab into a second city by the end of the year; he isn't sure if it'll be in Canada or the U.S. yet. But even if Tab is launched in an American city next, he's eager to get in a second Canadian city within 12 months.
"OpenTable is coming (to Canada), we know that, we've emerged certainly as a leader in Toronto and we'd like to continue to emerge as leaders in other major Canadian cities before they come," he says.
One of the immediate challenges is simply assuring Tab users that it really is OK for them to get up and leave unannounced at the end of their meal.
"We got an email from a customer saying, 'I tried it and the app said I was good to go and I left and it felt weird. But it felt awesome,'" Epstein says.
"Once you get over that hurdle of the fact that it is a change in behaviour ... it's a pretty fun thing."