Should Your Restaurant Adopt a Handheld Point-of-Sale?

For a server, running back and forth across the dining room is just part of the job. And with a traditional kiosk-based point-of-sale (POS), it’s a nonstop undertaking. 

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical scenario:

  • Server takes table’s drink order → server runs to the POS

  • Server takes appetizer and entree order → server runs to the POS

  • Ketchup, please → server heads straight to the POS

  • Here comes the second round of drinks → server strolls on back to the POS

  • Who’s having dessert? → and we’re back

  • Check, please → fifth time server’s at the POS

  • Payment and receipt → hello, old friend, we meet again, and then again

Depending on the restaurant, a server might swing by the POS three to seven times for every single table. It’s a time-consuming process, and lately more restaurants are trying to eliminate it.

How? With a handheld POS. 

What’s a handheld POS?

These portable systems allow servers to take and enter orders from a tablet or, in some cases, their own smartphone. This means a server can store an entire POS in their apron, and orders can be fired before they walk away from the table. Most handheld POS options also have integrated payment solutions, eliminating the back-and-forth of dropping the check, going to run the payment, and returning with the receipt.

All of this saves time and, of course, energy on behalf of waitstaff. But is it worth making the switch if you already have a traditional POS kiosk in place? 

If you’re running a full-service restaurant, it’s something to at least consider. We break down what you’d need to know to get the most out of a potential transition.

Benefits of investing in a handheld POS

The key benefit here is table turns. POS solution Toast estimates that restaurants with handheld POS systems turn tables up to 20% faster than those using a traditional POS. Orders are immediately pushed to the kitchen, and customers get their food faster as a result. When the meal’s over, payment becomes a one-step process. Servers pull up the check tableside, and customers are invited to pay immediately. 

Faster service and shorter wait times typically lead to happier customers. And servers who are saved from the exhausting task of running to and from a POS kiosk are going to be happier too. They’ll also have more time to interact with customers and improve customer satisfaction. Many restaurants can operate with leaner front of house teams when waitstaff have the time to take on more tables.

Another thing we can't ignore — the potential for higher tip totals. Handheld POS systems mean the waitstaff are at the customer’s side as they pay, not just dropping a paper slip.

Tableside POS solutions give restaurants a prime opportunity to plug loyalty programs too. By building loyalty invites into the payment process, customers can sign up on the spot.

Even if you don’t run a full-service restaurant, a portable POS can come in handy during rush hours. “A handheld POS can work great as a ‘line buster’ in high-volume cafes and QSRs that see long lines,” says Andy Freivogel, co-founder and CEO of restaurant tech support platform Science on Call.

Potential drawbacks and important considerations before adopting a portable POS 

A big risk to consider when investing in a handheld POS is the greater chance for it to get dropped, broken, or stolen.

“These devices aren't cheap,” says Freivogel. “The shock-proof cases can run up to $100, but it's worth it, and there are some good aprons out there with deep pockets.”

It’s also important to consider where you’ll use the devices, so that you can test the Wi-Fi strength in those areas. In some cases, you may need to invest in an upgraded Internet plan. “Make sure it's a wireless network that connects to the same data network as the rest of the POS solution – you can't use a handheld on ‘Jimmy's BBQ Guest’ and expect it to print to the kitchen,” says Freivogel. 

As with any new technology, building in training time is essential. Freivogel recommends giving staff at least two hours to play around with POS devices before deployment.

“Training [from the POS providers] is actually hard to come by,” says Freivogel. “Sometimes there’s bundled ‘training’ that includes a 45-minute video call, but it's very hard to teach a team how to use a new system this way, so the more time you can spend up front testing, the better outcome you can expect.”

Your training plan should address who handles charging the mobile devices each day.  “All handhelds in the dock” is one extra – and very important – step to add to the closing list.

“If they don't get charged overnight, the morning crew could be in for a rocky start,” says Freivogel.

How to choose the right portable POS option for your restaurant

Many of the popular cloud-based POS solutions offer handheld options, including Clover,  Lightspeed, POSitouch Poynt, Square, SpotOn, and Toast.

“I would say nearly 80- to 90-percent of POS solutions have something,” says Freivogel. “However, this is an area where the legacy POS solutions, like NCR Aloha and [Oracle] MICROS, have really fallen behind – when they have something, because of their elaborate closed-wall architectures, they are often just order-taking devices.”

Check with your existing POS provider first to see if they offer handheld options. If starting from scratch or making a cloud-based switch, Freivogel recommends looking for providers that have their own, proprietary handheld devices versus those that only offer a downloadable POS mobile app. Proprietary options include those from Square, Toast, Clover, Lightspeed, and Poynt. 

“Tablets are more likely to get broken or loaded up with other apps, which could affect performance of the device, and allowing employees to run a [POS] app on their personal device has its own set of challenges and liabilities,” says Freivogel.

You’ll also want to ask about POS integrations. A pay-at-the-table integration is particularly valuable. “[You want] a device that not only takes the orders and sends them to the kitchen but can accept credit cards via swiping and EMV, tap 'n pay, or even ApplePay or Google Pay,” says Freivogel. “It's another way to reduce friction on checkout.”

Before pulling the trigger, ask your sales rep if it’s possible to take the handheld solution on a test drive. This will give you a better idea of how easy it’ll be to actually deploy.

Pricing for portable POS systems

Cost is, of course, another major factor to consider when adopting any restaurant tech. Typically with a handheld POS, there’s an upfront device cost. Although some, like Square, have an app that staff can download to their personal phones. Additionally, there’s usually a monthly, per-device software fee

Prices will vary, but Freivogel recommends budgeting$300 to $600 for the upfront cost and $25 to $30 per device each month. Be sure to shop around, but it’s important to test out a POS before immediately jumping on the cheapest option.

“Cost is an issue, but without reliability and performance, it's not worth doing, even if it's free,” says Freivogel.