The waitress was nowhere in sight as my wife downed the last of her margarita at El Toro Blanco in downtown Manhattan on Sept. 25. It was getting a little late and a little cold. We were ready to go. So we stood up and left.
As we speed-walked to the subway, I felt the same illicit giddiness as when I last skipped out on the check. Although the Pizzeria Uno I sprinted out of in 1998 has yet to bring charges, El Toro Blanco caught up with me quickly. A few minutes later, a message popped up on my phone telling me that my credit card had been charged the full amount, plus 20 percent tip.
El Toro Blanco is one of about two dozen upscale New York restaurants using Cover, an app designed for solving the very specific, very First World problem of having to wait around for your check. It’s pretty simple: When I showed up at the restaurant, I checked in with the app. The waitress greeted us, and I told her we were going to pay with Cover. Surprisingly, she knew what I was talking about and was able to find me in the restaurant’s system. That’s it. The only other time I used my phone during dinner was when I Googled “epazote.” (It’s a Central American herb. If you have a chance to put it on your tamales, do it.)
Cover isn’t the only company trying to eliminate the middleman. Chili’s Grill & Bar is expanding its effort to use tablets instead of waitstaff. It offers the same basic promise—you don’t need to find a human when you’re ready to pay the check—but there’s a tablet sitting with you the entire time, showing you images of chocolate cake and tempting your children with video games that cost extra.
Square Wallet allows you to pay at some coffee shops by syncing your smartphone with the register via location services. But you still have to wait in line. PayPal recently launched an updated app so you can order and pay in advance; then your Jamba Juice is ready when you walk in the door. The one company that has been on this from the get-go is Uber, the car service app that takes care of payment ahead of time and lets you jump out the second the wheels stop rolling.
Cover makes money by lowering restaurants’ credit card transaction fees (because it serves as an extra identity check on the people who’ve signed up) and by keeping a percentage of those savings. And it will likely be good for business. When you know the price of that extra beer isn’t going to be staring you down the minute you stop chugging, you’re more likely to buy it. And there’s also evidence that people tip more when they think about it less. The NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission found that riders tip more on credit card transactions. Chili’s has shown that its tablet system also increases gratuities. With Cover, you set your default tip and have to manually change it during your meal if you’re either unhappy or ecstatic about service. Warning, cheapos: It won’t let you go under 18 percent.
Cover wants to be known for its simplicity, but it might be too simple. When the El Toro Blanco bill arrived on my phone, it was just a lump sum, with only the tip and tax broken out. Did I get charged for an appetizer I didn’t order? Did the waitress mistakenly add another round of drinks? I’ll never know. But if that’s the price of not making that awkward signing hand motion ever again, I’ll gladly make a standing reservation.