Have you ever waited so long at a restaurant for a waiter to bring the check that, even though you enjoyed the food, you swore never to eat there again?
Or how about that awkward moment after a meal with friends, when the check arrives and conversation stops because someone has to figure out how to split the bill fairly?
Hoping to eliminate such stressful dining-out experiences, a Kirkland, Wash.-based startup, Viableware, has created a potentially million-dollar product. Called RAIL (restaurant lingo for "quick"), it's a portable device that lets you do a self-checkout right from your table.
About the size of a typical restaurant check holder, the touchscreen device displays a digital version of the bill. Customers can use it to easily split the check, calculate tips, swipe their credit cards, and print out or email themselves the receipt.
"Basically you can pay the bill yourself in 20 seconds or less and you're no longer dependent on the waiter," said Joseph Snell, CEO of Viableware.
There's an advantage for restaurants, too. "Since waiters don't have to run back and forth with checks, they can focus on better service," said Snell.
The devices, which cost about $200 each, are currently being tested by PayPal andAmerican Express (AXP, Fortune 500), and in restaurants including P.F. Chang's,Dickie Brennan's Steakhouse and pub chain McMenamins.
This isn't Snell's first time launching a company. Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk bought Snell's first startup, Pantheon, a software provider for the publishing industry, in 1997. Over the ensuing years, the serial entrepreneur launched and sold three small businesses.
In 2010, a colleague approached Snell with an initial concept for the gadget. The basic idea was to protect customers from identity theft, since it allows diners to swipe their own credit card rather than hand it over to a waiter. RAIL doesn't store any customer information, like credit card numbers.
But Snell's gut told him he'd need to make the device even more useful to get the attention of investors and potential customers. So he talked to restaurant owners and others in the industry, and based on their feedback, added features like the ability to calculate tips, and split the bill.
Viableware so far has raised nearly $6.5 million in funding, mostly from Seattle-based angel investors. It found a manufacturer in China, and expects to make 300 to 600 of the devices this year. Snell hopes the technology catches on once the restaurants' pilot programs are done, so the company can start generating revenues.
If the company scores big contracts from large restaurant chains, Snell expects they could generate $3 million to $5 million in sales for the company by year end. Even better, he hopes, they could improve the dining-out experience for "both the restaurant and the consumer."