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Testing out Toast, new mobile app that helps diners keep an eye on the tab

Posted by Scott Kirsner  December 26, 2012 10:06 AM

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I usually like to pick up the bill when I’m interviewing someone over lunch. But last week at Firebrand Saints in Cambridge, Steve Fredette and I split the tab — mostly so he could demo the new app his startup has created.

Fredette left Endeca over the summer, and with another alumnus of the Cambridge business intelligence company, Jonathan Grimm, started Toast Inc. (At Endeca, Fredette had launched and led the mobile software development team. A third member of the Toast team remains at Oracle, the company that acquired Endeca last year.) Toast is currently operating out of the Kendall Square offices of Bessemer Venture Partners, the VC firm, but Fredette says he hasn’t yet accepted any outside funding for the venture.

The Toast iPhone app allows you to start a tab at a restaurant, linked to your credit card. You can see what’s on your tab and divide it exactly as you’d like among several diners. (Maybe you want to split it down the middle, or pay only for what you ordered — especially on those occasions when your companion downs a few cocktails and you’re sipping cola.) You can set an amount for the tip, and settle up whenever you’re ready. Toast eliminates all that back-and-forth with the check, your credit card, and multiple copies of the receipt.

toastscreen.jpgOn the restaurant’s end, Toast provides an Android tablet that is plugged in to the cash register. (Toast currently works only with POSitouch point-of-sale systems.) That enables wait staff to enter orders the way they usually do, and have them magically appear on the app that diners are using. Servers can also get background on customers by clicking on their profiles on the tablet: who comes in frequently, tips well, or often brings in big groups. “One problem that most restaurants have,” Fredette says, “is that as they hire new staff, their regulars aren’t recognized.”

Eventually, Fredette plans for Toast to do more. He sees it as an establishment’s “connection with their customers,” a way for them to ask you for feedback, or to share your experience on social media. There will also be a way for restaurants to send you special offers (of course.)

When we tried it last Thursday, a few things went awry, as is often the case with demos of technology that’s still in development. Our server, apparently new, had never heard of Toast. Fredette mentioned the name of another server who had used the system. A tab got started with Toast, but it only included Fredette, not me. So we asked again, and finally we were both included on it. (Servers see pictures of diners using Toast pop up on the tablet next to the cash register, and click them to add them to a tab.) Then, I could see the items we ordered on the screen of my iPhone, and Fredette and I could choose which ones we wanted to pay for. We also noticed that someone had added a mango iced tea to our order that we’d discussed with the server, but hadn’t ordered (or received.) We asked for that to be removed, the old-fashioned way, and it was. Despite the snafus, it was nice to have a way to split the bill in a very granular fashion (I paid just for my fish sandwich and side of polenta, which were $2 more expensive than what Fredette ordered), and also to pay and leave exactly when we were ready to do so. With large groups, Fredette pointed out, Toast deals fairly with that scoundrel who always dashes out fifteen minutes before everyone else, plunks down a $20, and then forces everyone else cover his overage.

Right now, Toast is only deployed at Firebrand Saints. “We wanted to get it right at one place first, and then it becomes an easier sell to other restaurants,” Fredette says. “And we hope people will tell their friends about it.” He says that eventually, the company hopes to charge restaurants a fee in exchange for helping them cultivate a larger, more loyal customer base.

It’s worth giving Toast a whirl next time you are hungry in Kendall...

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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