Uber for restaurants: Dine and dash, legally

There are a lot of Uber-likes in the startup world. There are startups competing to be the Uber for food, Uber for alcohol, Uber for parking, Uber for valet-ing your car, and many, many more. Most of those will never see the light of day.

One of the central features that makes Uber successful is the elimination of payment handling. You use an app to call a car, then just sit back and enjoy the ride. The linked article is about some Uber-likes for the restaurant industry. One in particular, Reserve, has a secret advantage.

Reserve is the first launch from Expa, an incubator (billed as a “startup studio”) helmed by Uber cofounder Garrett Camp and Foursquare cofounder Naveen Selvadurai. Expa’s portfolio currently includes three companies: Uber, Reserve, and a shadowy product called Operator. The incubator has some prominent investors as well: Sir Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, author Tim Ferriss, Google board member Ram Shriram, and TPG’s David Bonderman are all on board.

The idea is to make a reservation on your app, then show up in the restaurant, where you continue the transaction on an iPad-based system built into the restaurant. Order what you like, then leave. The payment is automatically billed to your account.

Offering pay-through-app capabilities to restaurants and bars is a natural idea for startups. Handling payment is one of the biggest choke points for the hospitality industry, and slow waitstaff account for a significant amount of angry Yelp reviews. But the restaurant industry is an incredibly hard one to build a sustainable startup in—restaurant owners are legendarily mercurial and diners are slow to adopt new services unless there’s an obvious selling point.

Another central feature of Uber-likes is the ability to establish an account (or multiple accounts) that do not require any validation beyond the initial setup. In the restaurant universe, this means you could use your business card to set up accounts for your employees to use for entertainment, and another card for your family.

Of all the Uber-likes I’ve seen, Reserve seems like it has the functionality and the pedigree to succeed. The limiting factor is the willingness of the restaurant industry to sign up.