Contemplating the Future of Payment Technology at the National Restaurant Association Show

We bring you the highlights of POS systems and payment processors from this year’s National Restaurant Association Show in Chicago.


Photos by Andy Freivogel

During our visit to this month’s National Restaurant Association Show at McCormick Place in Chicago, we found churros “dragged through the garden,” mini gyros, caramel-filled pretzels, competing hot dogs from Vienna Beef and Nathan’s Famous (guess which one offered ketchup?), and fairly comprehensive offerings from coffee and cheese mongers. 

Narrator: They ate them!

What we did not find were any surprises from the parallel universes of point-of-sale systems and payment processors. If the technology industry has anything to say about it, it would appear that the future involves more Android tablets than iPads, and that Windows-based device strategies continue a slow, painful decline in relevance.

NCR (yes, that stands for National Cash Register, and they don’t make cash registers anymore) held court near the front of the show’s Technology Pavilion, and appeared to be swamped by customers they already have, many of whom were venting their frustrations. NCR still doesn’t have a clear or solid table-side payments strategy: We were shown a confusing array of mobile devices that speak to a stationary payment terminal, across what appeared to be a proprietary wireless network, replete with early-2000s-era black plastic antennas.

The real action, if there was any to be found on the trade show floor, seemed to be around the cloud-based point-of-sale and payment systems. This was the case two years ago, and two years before that. 

POS maker Lavu has managed to maintain a decent footprint, both in booth size and the amount of activity. They showed off their kiosk implementation, which is a complete solution, including a very clean black metal kiosk stand, and a tablet interface that allows for an intuitive customer-process ordering process. For a company that is near the front of the pack in terms of growth in the cloud POS field, Upserve (formerly Breadcrumb) had the most spartan of exhibit spaces, with two reps, two tablets, and a table. Upserve now offers their point-of-sale solution on the Android platform, using ELO terminals very similar to Toast, but that didn’t seem to be generating any buzz on the trade show floor. It’s possible that Upserve’s decidedly inside-sales strategy doesn’t require more of a presence.

Toast’s sleek new charging station.

By contrast, Toast Point of Sale boasted what looked to be a quadruple booth, and was absolutely mobbed by show attendees. Toast introduced its latest table-side ordering and payment device—the ToastGo—about 18 months ago, and now offers an impressive charging station for devices, practically eliminating the previously obligatory octopus of cables and USB chargers. Other than their stationary ELO terminals now being available in white, there wasn’t much new to report. But the contrast between the size and bustle of Toast’s booth compared to their competitors was startling.

Toast’s busy display area.

One outlier was the modest, 10×10 area reserved for Pax (no, not PAX Era, but follow @scienceretail for insight on dispensary tech). Pax makes payment devices that run Android on tiny screens with surprisingly robust POS features. They are often the same size as a grocery store credit-card terminal, but there’s something very liberating about the idea of a small POS terminal with integrated credit-card processing that isn’t an Android tablet or iOS device. Sure, it’s unlikely one of these devices will integrate seamlessly into a larger POS ecosystem, but PAX’s self-contained approach is a breath of fresh air compared to the tablet POS solutions that shone so brightly in 2014, but have added very little luster since.

Andy Freivogel is founder of the retail technology-consulting firm Science, which he started after 20 years of work in retail coffee and technology consulting. In addition to guiding specialty and boutique retail customers through the landscape of POS systems, guest Wi-Fi solutions, and PCI compliance, he also enjoys free jazz, black metal, skateboarding, street art, and cooking West African dishes, and pens the “Tech Support” column for Barista Magazine. Andy and his wife live in Oak Park, Ill., with their two children, a Chihuahua, a pit bull, two cats, and a frog.

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