The technology that has permeated the fast-casual restaurant industry with the goal of getting diners their food and their bills more quickly is beginning to find its way into fine dining as well in the Denver area, even as some legal experts question whether it raises liability issues for restaurants that are gathering personally identifiable information on their customers in new ways.

Quick-serve restaurants have rolled out digital-ordering apps, set up specific lines for people to pick up their orders when they’ve paid before arrival and contracted with more third-party delivery services, sometimes directly through their online systems. Full-service restaurants have been slower to do much of this, however, relying on traditional practices to collect payments near the end of a meal and to control the process through their servers — a business model that can frustrate younger customers who are especially used to controlling the pace of transactions these days.

So, local fine-dining establishments such as The Fort have begun to experiment with table-side payment options and other methods to speed up the billing process, even for people who are willing to wait for a rack of bison ribs. And, much like the pioneers who set aside their hand-written reservation books for online services like OpenTable some 15 years ago, they are finding there are tangible benefits to this use of technology, even as questions continue about its rollout.

The Fort, for example, signed on with Kirkland, Washington-based company TableSafe this spring to offer a new system called The Rail that is being used at 100 full-service restaurants nationwide. The system allows for servers to drop an electronic bill on the table as the meal nears its close, with which customers can pay, leave a tip and fill out a three-question survey on their time frame without the server having to return.

Holly Arnold Kinney, owner of The Fort, said she’d found that customers like such an option because they want to keep control of their credit card rather than give it to someone and wonder who’s had access to their personal information before it returns. But she’s also found that customer-service reviews are up since she implemented the new system, even as she believes it is reducing the liability of the restaurant.

“In the world we live in today, people are very uncomfortable having their credit card out of their hand, given so much identity theft around the world,” Kinney said. “They want control of their credit card. Through this really, the customer is continually the user of the credit card.”

TableSafe's Rail system is in use at The Fort in Morrison and about 75 other full-service restaurants nationally.

But the more that restaurants bring in new vendors that have access to personally identifiable information on their cards, the more they do share in the liability if any of those vendors suffers a data breach, said David Stauss, a partner at Ballard Spahr LLP in Denver and author of the “Colorado Privacy & Cybersecurity Handbook.”

Especially with vendors who offer surveys, many of them collect and tabulate the information and have the ability to sell collected data on customers — though not their actual credit-card information — to other parties. But if that data is stolen from the third-party company, restaurants may have to alert the customers as if the breach was to their system, Stauss said.

Erik Ploof, TableSafe vice president of business development, said his company only stores information in aggregate rather than keeping responses that can be attributed to individual customers. And because TableSafe sends payment information directly to processors like Visa (NYSE: V), no data collected in transactions resides permanently on its systems or on the point-of-sale systems of the restaurants it has as clients, he said.

Systems like The Rail are seeing demand because they can enhance guest services and because millennial diners in particular rely more on electronic payments and the ability to share funds, he said. And the three-question survey that The Rail asks — a survey that has an 85 percent response rate — allows restaurants to be more nimble in assessing its service needs.

Kinney also said that with the new system, she’s been able to identify “star servers” and to learn from them how to improve the overall system. And just as she tentatively gave up her reservations book to accept online reservations through a third-party vendor more than a decade ago before deciding she would never go back to hard-copy reservation books, she now believes that allowing for technology to get a foothold in the transaction process not only will make the running of her restaurant more efficient but that it will free up servers to do what they do best — serve.

“I would guess in the next five years, everyone’s going to have it,” she said in general of table-side bill-paying technology.

https://www.bizjournals.com/denver/news/2018/11/05/denver-fine-dining-table-side-technology.html