Any parent of small children who has recently eaten at Olive Garden or Chili’s would probably fully support nominating Viren Balar for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Even though they might not know his name.
Balar is one of the co-founders and the chief technical officer of Ziosk — the tableside tablet that allows diners to place and augment orders, play games, read news and, at the end, settle up the check and be on their way.
Or, as parents everywhere know it:
“The Great Peacemaker That Gave My Children Something To Do So I Could Read The Menu And Eat.”
In a world without Ziosk, mothers and fathers could — and usually did — proffer their iPhone over to their toddler in the faint hopes of ordering an appetizer before watching their $700 phone shatter when hitting the ground, but it was a sub-optimal solution for anyone not selling Apple Care packages.
And, Balar told PYMNTS in a recent conversation, the founding days of Ziosk were really all about looking at those types of problems in restaurants — the sub-optimal solution that there was an opportunity to fix.
Payments was among the first problems they found, because it was just so out-of-step with the experience consumers were having everywhere else.
“If you were to go to a retail shop and someone were to ask you, ‘Hey, let me get your card, I’ll be gone for five minutes and I’ll be back,’ you’d say, ‘Wait a minute, no, you aren’t going anyplace with my card.’ You go to a restaurant today, and you don’t think twice before handing out that card. Everyplace else in the world you’re gonna say no. I don’t even want to give out my card to colleagues I trust.”
This reaction when handing a card over to a stranger — especially in a world where card cloning fraud in restaurants is not an uncommon occurrence — isn’t as ridiculous as it may sound. Over the course of the last decade, the physical payments transaction has also become completely unnecessary, according to Balar, because of the general evolution of the market toward self-service, particularly on mobile devices.
And in a self-service-oriented world, payments, Balar noted, are powerful because they are “a great interception point” when it comes to meeting customer needs and providing the right experience at the right moment. Even if a restaurant customer is not actually centrally concerned with the payment (other than having enough to cover it), giving them a better option for it changes the tenor of the experience.
“On some level, it is about the gift of time — which is what our parent fans get: The time is precious to the experience. The Ziosk is designed to give that time, and in a way the consumer can feel secure in. We’re talking about that Uber moment of payments here, when the customer is asking, ‘Why do I have to pay when I am leaving my cab? Why can’t I just port my info, get charged in the cloud and leave?’”
Similarly, why should a family eating out — or a couple on a date — have to flag down their server, hand over a card and wait to get it back to pay? Why not just pay when they’re done and leave, Uber-style?
Once you start there, the layered features start to present themselves: Why flag down a waiter to order dessert or an extra drink, why hand a small child and expensive phone? The point, Balar noted, is to give their restaurant partners the chance to offer their consumers the experience they want — which is the experience they fully control right down to the fact that their card never has to leave their hands.
And the ability to offer their merchants that full range services for their clients is why Ziosk keeps coming back to payments — and improving the offering — most recently with a huge wave of updates to those tableside tablets known as zPay.
Souped Up Payments
Though similarly named, zPay isn’t like the other “…” Pays out there. According to Balar, Ziosk attempts to more efficiently build out payments as the right interception point for consumers.
Which means going forward, those Ziosk tablets are built to do a lot more than just swipe a card and send customers on their way.
“Our journey is, we have made our Ziosk future-proof for every form of payment — EMV, mag strip, NFC, Bluetooth, QR coded — this isn’t about making merchants or customers choose. We are essentially making all of it available to them so they can pick the payment experience they want.”
The new payments solutions incorporated in zPay also utilize tokenization, encryption, P2PE and are fully PCI and EMV-compliant. And, Balar notes, they are first to market in the casual dining restaurant space with all of those necessary certification requirements.
But offering it isn’t enough, Balar said, because it also has to be easy for restaurants to incorporate, which is why he explained that Ziosk was designed from the word “Go” to be backwards compatible. To upgrade into zPay, merchants can keep using the tablets they already have.
“We don’t say you have to do new hardware,” Balar said. “We introduce everything they need in a battery that plugs into the Ziosk tablet. You take it out at night, you charge it and snap it back in — and bam — you are backwards compatible with the entire zPay system.”
No new integration, he notes, no change.
And that’s important, because change is overwhelming and very expensive in restaurants, which is likely why the adoption rates for EMV in that vertical are so low. Merchants shouldn’t be having to make choices about what expensive upgrade will be the right one. It’s just not a realistic decision.
“Restaurants are facing so many choices. There is the move toward self-service and payment-on-demand, the EMV liability shift and all the new age payments forms with digital wallets. We’re seeing now restaurants saying ‘Yes, how do I get it in,’ but also saying ‘And how do I make it a lot easier for me instead of having to deal with a bunch of different vendors and gateways? How can I really bring the technology in the space?’ Without something on the table — something like Ziosk on the table — that is going to be almost impossible.”
The journey Ziosk is on — and it’s been a pretty quick ride with around 200,000 tablets on restaurant table tops nationwide — hasn’t changed much since they started out, according to Balar, though the goals are always expanding.
Next up, Balar says, is loyalty. When a guest comes back to a restaurant they’ve visited before, they are recognized, the menu they see reflects their preferences, their points are automatically applied to their bill — and, on the whole, they get a tailored experience without having to do much more than touch a screen.
It all comes back to that point of interception, catching a customer at the right moment and improving the the interaction for everyone and to everyone’s benefit.
It’s a lofty goal.
But then, Ziosk are the people who brought peace to family dinners at the Olive Garden.
It’s hard to imagine there’s anything they can’t do after that.