Restaurant Apps Powered by CardFree: Dunkin', Starbucks, Taco Bell

Web Apps vs. Native Apps For Your Restaurant – Lessons From the Original Team Behind Starbucks Mobile

Does your restaurant need a native app or is a web app the best solution? The team behind three of the world’s most successful mobile restaurant experiences breaks down what you need to know, plus lessons to learn from the gold standard — the Starbucks app…

In the competitive world of hospitality tech, our founding members are the OGs of restaurant apps – like Michael Jordan and the 90s Bulls, complete with a three-peat under their belts. The founding team at CardFree created the original Starbucks Mobile app, including the product manager and tech lead from the project. Our team was also responsible for the original Dunkin’ Mobile and Taco Bell’s mobile ordering app. These three merchant apps have been in the top 15 most popular food and drink apps since their launch, with over 32 million downloads facilitating millions of transactions every week. 


Just like MJ, Rodman, and Pippen transformed the league, those early restaurant apps shifted the landscape of the hospitality world. Today, most restaurants have at least some mobile presence and consumers now expect merchants of all sizes to enable them to skip lines, order and pay wherever, whenever, and however, while earning rewards in the process. 


The pandemic accelerated those customer expectations, as usage of restaurant apps hit record highs in 2021 with users spending 49% more time on those apps compared to the previous year.  


However, there are lots of factors to consider in developing a mobile app, and in many cases, a standalone native app is not always the best option. On top of the significant investment of both time and money, a number of strategic questions must be answered in order to make sure that efforts are not wasted.


Does you restaurant need a native app or should you use mobile web?


That depends on what you’re trying to do. If all you want is basic functionality such as order ahead, payments, and a store locator, then mobile web is your best bet. It is a waste of valuable budget to build an app with basic functionality – adoption and usage will be low, giving you very little R in your ROI. 


Some advantages of building a web app over a native app include:

    • Faster and less expensive to build  – Web apps are relatively simple to build and deploy compared to native apps, typically with a cheaper price tag. Most of CardFree’s web app solutions can be deployed within a few days or weeks.
    • Easy access and shareability  – Your guests can easily access the web ordering app with a simple web search, URL, or QR code, no download required. They can also share it with friends as easily as sharing any other web page. 
    • Your web app can be a “native app” — Your web app can be submitted to the App Store or Play Store so your guests can download a shortcut icon, or app clip, that lives on their phone for easy access any time. In this scenario, most users won’t be able to tell the difference between your web app and any other native app on their phone.
    • Cost — Driving downloads costs both literal dollars and a significant amount of training/marketing effort to convince folks with app fatigue to add yet another brand to their device.


From a technical perspective, native apps can provide a smoother customer experience in some respects compared to web apps, and they offer some features that come in handy on the marketing and promotional side of things, including: 

    • Smartphone features – Native apps can leverage the device hardware to enable functionality like push notifications, geo-location services, and the camera. Most notably for restaurant apps, push notifications can be used to send guests special deals or promotions, messages based on proximity to your stores, notifications when their order is ready, birthday or special event freebies, or reminders about loyalty points. 
    • Speed and performance – most native code is stored locally on the phone, meaning the customer does not have to wait for content to load from the web each time they visit the site and each time they click on a link. 
    • Usability – Mobile app developers have complete control over the UI, whereas web developers are limited to the capabilities of the web browser.  
    • Offline access – Quite simply, web app users are at the mercy of their Internet connection. Native apps have the ability to store information locally until a connection can be made with a web server so customers can access and use features such as loyalty even if offline. 


Given all this, if your app will feature rich functionality beyond order ahead, payments, and loyalty, then a native app may be the way to go. In essence, a native app for your restaurant is more of a branding play than anything else – if aggressive growth, a robust marketing strategy, and world domination are in your roadmap, a native app could be the right choice. 


However, if you simply want to future-proof your operation while keeping up with the expectations of guests as far as order ahead, payments, and loyalty, a web app will do you just fine. For CardFree restaurant clients with 100 locations or less that offer both native and web apps, over 80% of their transactions take place via web, compared to less than 17% of transactions happening on their native iOS and Android apps. 


What made Starbucks’ restaurant app so successful and what can other merchants expect for adoption?

Starbucks Mobile

The Starbucks mobile app has clearly been successful – one of the most downloaded and used restaurant apps, still considered the gold standard. Since our team helped bring the Starbucks’ app to the masses, we know a thing two about what it takes to create and launch a successful app. By learning from the steps Starbucks took, merchants can set their mobile products up for successful adoption too.


So, what made Starbucks successful?  


Having a plan to address the following 8 areas (not in order of importance) will set you up for successful adoption.

    • Keep it simple – Too many bells and whistles can distract from the overall customer experience. Set clear goals that all cross-functional folks can understand – in the case of Starbucks it was “2 touches to pay and no new process.”  This addressed the user experience – simple UI with a large pay button (hero feature) and minimized operational impact to the stores. No new process meant that the customer and barista interaction remained the same (customer orders, barista tells customer the cost, customer says they will pay with X, in this case mobile in lieu of cash or credit, barista completes the transaction). 
    • Infrastructure – Make sure your infrastructure is squared away before embarking on something new. With an eye toward a full roll out, do the work you need to in order to support your new product (POS upgrade, etc.). Scale back when needed if you need to test elements first (before you get customers involved).  
    • Testing – Be disciplined about testing and line up exit criteria with the appropriate test phase. In the case of Starbucks, testing was broken into 3 phases each with exit criteria. 
        1. Lab phase was focused on back end technology and ensuring all the transactions flowed correctly.
        2. Test Store phase was focused on operations and seeing how the new product impacted the daily task work in the store with customers ordering and paying at the POS.  
        3. Test Market phase was focused on the early adopter customer input and their experience using the product (fast / slow / easy / hard / love it, etc.)  Note that customer input was not introduced into the equation prior to lab phase and test store phase — you want the process to flow smoothly in order to get customer input on the product and the experience, not on the process.
    • Buy in and training – Make sure key stakeholders buy into your vision – well before introducing customers to the mix. At Starbucks, there were many stakeholders but Operations was the gatekeeper to all things introduced to the store  (labor, training, speed of service etc.).  Make sure that you understand how to address your gatekeeper’s concerns and make them a part of the success – in Starbucks’ case, this was ensuring that the product did not slow down the line, require additional training or incur any unreasonable operational overhead.
    • Constant feedback – Get feedback along the way – from IT, from ops, from customers. Listen to all stakeholders and be sure you address the ones who are the most resistant, understanding their concerns and acknowledging their perspective. At Starbucks, paying close attention to the Operations team feedback yielded a product that was benign to the daily workflow in the stores, which was critical to the success of the program.
    • Customers – Listen to customers – course correct where needed. Do your customers understand how to use the product? Did they need training or could they figure it out on their own?  What do they think?  Would they recommend a friend try it?  Did they feel good using the product or did they feel awkward?  Ask your customers all these questions.  The cardinal rule – never let your early adopter customer feel awkward – this means making sure that the process works flawlessly every time and your customer-facing teams are product advocates.
    • Scale – Plan for success – whatever you take to market has to be viable in all of your stores. While developing your product, and making sure all the basics are lined up (operations, technology), plan for success – make sure that your economics will work at the full roll out number of stores. This means accurate assumptions on financial models as well as accurate accounting of roll out, implementation, and support costs. This will ensure the investment in your product will pass your hurdle rate.
    • Value – The product you bring to market must be intuitive, provide utility and fit in with your customers’ habits / workflow. This is the kicker. Even if you do everything else right, if your product does not resonate with the user, solving a daily need or providing other utility, then the user may try the app out but will not adopt.  Your first users will likely be early adopters, and providing basic utility will be enough to interest them.  But to really go mainstream, you need to tap into the value proposition that means something to the most customers – in the case of Starbucks, this came when Loyalty points were added to the mobile app (which went to market with basic utility – store locator, menu and mobile pay).·  


Despite the fact that Starbucks had some very unique factors weighing in its favor, it is not a unicorn in its mobile success. Following the above steps will help any merchant maximize adoption and reach that elite level – take it from the championship team behind 3 of the world’s leading mobile restaurant experiences…


Mobile Connectivity in hotels

Why Your Hotel Operation Should Embrace Mobile Connectivity: Trends & Examples

From digital room keys to mobile room service ordering, poolside drink delivery, and everything in between, the hotel and resort industry is adopting mobile at a rapid pace.

It’s no secret that mobile technology has dominated our lives. In ten years, the number of Americans who own smartphones has risen from 35% to 85%, while 97% of the entire population owns “a cell phone of some kind.”


In addition to mobile adoption, a global pandemic has forced businesses in all industries to rethink how they serve their customers, and hotels are no exception.


With a robust tech stack, including food and beverage solutions like CardFree’s location-based delivery, mobile room service ordering, charge-to-room, and on-site kiosks, hotels can offer a completely mobilized guest experience.


How Mobile Is Taking Over Hotels


From displaying our vaccination status with a QR code to buying a new car, mobile connectivity is so intertwined with daily life that it’s hard to imagine any business without it, including hotels.


In the hotel industry, guests use their phones to pay for rooms, check in and out, order room service, and a lot more. According to HotelTechReport, 46% of guests think that having a mobile key for their room is important to them.


We’re not far from a world where guests using their phones to unlock their rooms is as ubiquitous as hotel key cards are today. In fact, that world is virtually here already, as Hilton’s digital keys have opened more than 135 million guestrooms since the company introduced the technology in 2015.


A recent study from hotel software company, stayntouch reports that “hospitality tech used by hotels increased by 31% between the start of the pandemic and the end of 2021.” The study goes on to note that these technologies solved problems that arose because of the pandemic, particularly “surrounding ‘contactless’ experiences.” Many hotels also had to operate with smaller staffs after the onset of the pandemic, ushering in further automation and the adoption of new tech.


The Benefits of Mobile Connectivity for Hotels

Mitigate Labor Issues


Not only does mobile tech solve problems for guests, but it’s equally – if not more – beneficial for business operators. The report by stayntouch finds a correlation between the departments of hotels that can be supported by technologies in lieu of a smaller staff versus the actual technology being used.

Stayntouch hotelier technology sentiment report
stayntouch, 2022.

The top four categories on the chart above are jobs normally done by the front desk alone. This has a major impact on business operations–hotels are cutting the cost of labor by using cheaper and equally efficient technology.


Boost Revenue


On the food and beverage side, the adoption of mobile ordering is not only easing the pain of labor issues, but also padding the bottom line. In fact, CardFree clients see an average 30% boost in check size on digital orders compared to orders placed the old fashioned way. 


A study from Hotel Management, which surveyed 7,000 travelers finds that 47% of respondents would be more likely to order room service or takeout from a hotel restaurant if they were able to use a mobile room service ordering app. 


Putting that theory to the test, the first hotel client CardFree launched with mobile room service ordering (with integrated room charge) saw a 70% increase in room service!


It isn’t surprising to learn, then, that the hotel industry at large plans to use more mobile tech, as a recent Hospitality Tech study shows that 66% of hotels intend to increase their IT budgets in 2022.


On the flip side of that, some hoteliers surveyed in the stayntouch report are doubtful of new technology for reasons including:

    • Difficulty with integrations
    • Lack of scalability
    • Hospitality “losing its essence”

While some skepticism is understandable, many tech platforms on the market are designed to seamlessly work with your hotel’s existing tech stack. Services like CardFree integrate with nearly all POS systems, payment processors, and hotel management software, making setup fast and simple. CardFree’s tech is also built with scalability in mind, with over 2.1 billion transactions processed at over 20,000 locations.


In an industry traditionally driven by customer service and personal touches, it’s no surprise that some hoteliers are hesitant to adopt new technology that eliminates certain person-to-person interactions. Contrary to this “fear of losing the essence of hospitality,” coupling mobile tech with an engaging, well-trained staff can actually enhance the customer experience. When items like payments, ordering, or scheduling are taken off your staff’s plate, they are free to focus on other areas of customer service, more easily tend to individual guests, and provide more personalized service.


Improve Guest Satisfaction


It’s also worth noting that 52% of Hospitality Tech survey respondents reported that guests increasingly prefer digital service encounters over encounters with staff.


For the guest, all of this goes back to the core idea behind mobile tech, that convenience is king. That convenience in your hotel can have a major impact on one of the less enjoyable aspects of travel–the waiting game. At major hotel chains, long check-in lines and crowds waiting to order food and drinks are still a problem, especially at peak hours and seasons. When guests are only staying for a short time, they can end up losing a decent portion of their stay waiting in lines. Mobile tech can remedy this by allowing guests to check-in, order food, schedule a spa appointment, book a tee time, etc. all from their phones.

Increase Loyalty 


On top of providing convenience and operational efficiency, hotels are also using mobile tech to engage guests via loyalty programs that go beyond simple discounts or point accruals. Marriott, for example, only provides digital keys to members of their loyalty program, giving guests incentive to participate, especially when it’s as easy as downloading an app.


The World of Hyatt rewards program, ranked one of the top hotel programs, offers members exclusive access to features on their mobile app, allowing them to choose preferred check-in times, enter their room with mobile keys, communicate their room and housekeeping preferences, and even access curated meditations from Headspace and other entertainment via Chromecast.


CardFree at Your Hotel

mobile room service ordering

When planning your hotel’s mobile roadmap, it’s important to select the right partners to integrate into your tech stack. With the CardFree platform, we offer best-in-class mobile ordering, payments, and charge-to-room features built with scalability in mind, easily integrated into POS and hotel management systems. 


With CardFree, hotels can offer their guests a number of ways to improve the experience while increasing sales and mitigating labor shortages, including:

    • Order-To-Room – Scanning a room-specific QR code, guests can easily place mobile room service orders and have their meal delivered directly to their room without the hassle of calling.
    • Charge-To-Room – Whether guests use digital ordering (room service, pickup, at the table) or Pay@Table, they can easily “charge-to-room” in seconds using their last name and room number.
    • Pay@Table – Guests can easily pay their bill at hotel restaurants without waiting for their server simply by scanning a QR code, adding a tip, and choosing their payment method.
    • Order@Table – Guests can order from their mobile device – with or without a server – while keeping an open tab / ticket in the POS.
    • On-Site Delivery – Guests scan a QR code specific to a location (poolside, business center, etc.) and have their order brought right to them.
    • Order Ahead – Enable guests to quickly and easily order ahead for pickup via mobile with charge-to-room features.
    • On-Site Kiosks – Guests can order, pay, and charge-to-room from your hotel restaurants via branded interactive menus with on-site touchscreen kiosks.


Convenience is king, and mobile is the king of convenience.


The hotel industry is only increasing its adoption of mobile technology with a projected 75% increase in self-service check-in and a 59% increase in digital payments, all by the end of 2022. Now is the time for hotel operators to plan their digital roadmap and seize the new opportunities created by mobile connectivity. 


If your business is prepared to get mobile ready, drop us a line and we’ll be in contact with more info.   

Economic moat

Restaurants are Drowning in POS Vendors’ Moats

This article was originally published via Hospitality Technology in Aug, 2020. | Written by Alan Paul, CardFree Co-Founder and CRO.

A new moat has emerged across legacy and cloud POS vendors alike: third party access to the POS, which is primarily about control, not technical or resource constraints.

An economic moat, as coined by Warren Buffet, is a competitive advantage – gained through technology, pricing power, switching costs, etc. – that a business possesses, which protects long-term profits. With the rise of cloud Point of Sale systems (POS) over the past several years, legacy POS have heavily leaned on high switching costs as their primary moat. Due to restaurants’ migration to digital technology, which the pandemic has greatly accelerated, a new moat has emerged across legacy and cloud POS vendors alike: third party access to the POS, which is primarily about control, not technical or resource constraints. 


Restaurants industry-wide are struggling to navigate a highly fragmented POS ecosystem with a stream of new entrants juxtaposed against a vast array of legacy providers. They must choose between the known vs the unknown devil, modern architecture vs scalability, owning vs renting, bundled vs unbundled payment processing and so forth. Most restaurants simply do not know that they should have third party access as a criterion or, if they do, it is low on the list. COVID-19 has highlighted why that is a huge problem for restaurants now and going forward.


As touchless payment and ordering solutions such as mobile Pay@Table and Order@Table continue to be in high demand, restaurants desperately need good solutions even though cash flow to pay for said solutions is tight. Consequently, new players have been flooding into the market including various POS providers, believing that they, too, can build compelling consumer facing product. However, for some POS, it is unclear what the timeline to roll out viable solutions is or if they are even beyond the inception phase. Moreover, those that have rolled out solutions do not have quality product, optimal functionality, or interfaces needed for a seamless guest experience such as: Apple Pay or Google Pay, split bill functionality, restaurant branding, and intuitive UI / UX.


Stop: Third Party Access


The problem is that these same POS providers are precluding their clients from working with third party solutions, either by explicitly blocking access or by making access impractical via massive fees or miles of red tape. To be clear, there is often minimal incremental work or constraint on the POS to allow access to third parties and, generally, third party solutions tend to provide superior solutions.


Of course, this makes things challenging for vendors with competing products – that is the point after all – but more importantly it is very detrimental to restaurants. The new restaurant format hinges on the ability to provide user-friendly and accessible technology that is both practical and cognizant of heightened health & safety guidelines.


The Detriments of a Closed POS


Closed POS systems can negatively impact restaurants’ bottom lines by: 

    • Prohibiting restaurants from working with new integrated systems that allow them to offer mobile ordering, contactless payments, etc.
    • Creating roadblocks for third-party tech companies as they attempt to integrate the restaurant’s preferred contactless solutions
    • Increasing the cost of using third party vendors by excessively charging restaurants for API access, charging vendors for API access, or both

When restaurants are impeded from working with other solutions or are forced to bear a much higher cost for the POS-provided solution, then restaurants become collateral damage, drowning in the moats their POS providers built to keep everyone else out.


Allowing third party access to POS is good for restaurants and for spurring innovation, which is good for the overall industry. And the restaurant industry could really use something good right now.





In partnership with CardFree, Torchy’s Is Deploying A Full Suite Of Contact-Free Services Both On And Off-Premise To Enhance The Consumer Experience

(SAN FRANCISCO, CA) –– As the restaurant industry continues evolving alongside consumer preferences during a pandemic era, operators and owners are seeking long-term contactless solutions that go beyond just the immediate needs at hand, while understanding that the public health crisis has permanently changed the dine-in experience for the foreseeable future. CardFree––an established leader in mobile solutions––has become more prominent this year due to its ability to straddle both the current climate and the long game by offering restaurants the most comprehensive suite of mobile ordering services in the market as well as positively impacting their bottom line. 

Ahead of the new year, CardFree has now partnered with the beloved craft-casual restaurant brand, Torchy’s Tacos, known for its unique and differentiated ‘Damn Good Tacos’ across its 83 locations in seven states. In November 2020, CardFree updated Torchy’s online ordering and on-premise contactless services, which are now live in Torchy’s locations in Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Oklahoma. CardFree’s services streamline and enhance the user experience on the ordering site, which has already resulted in higher order volume as well as a higher average ticket. To add to consumer ease, Torchy’s is also piloting easier curbside pickup with “I’m Here” notifications that can be initiated from the order confirmation. 

“Torchy’s is already an iconic brand and is now quickly positioning itself as a digital leader by reimagining how mobile can transform the restaurant experience,” notes Jon Squire, CEO of CardFree. “We worked with Scott when he was leading marketing efforts at Dunkin’ and he is now bringing the same level of innovation and change to Torchy’s. The Torchy’s team is taking a consumer-centric approach and thinking about how to make a very experiential brand even richer. With our Order@Table feature, diners can add drink orders to the table without having to get back in line, which will add to both customer satisfaction and ticket size. With Text-to-Pay, consumers that call in orders no longer have to give credit card info over the phone or at pickup. We were already in discussions about all of these initiatives pre-COVID; it just makes even more sense now.”

Other contactless features will be added to Torchy’s suite of services over the next few months, such as Order@Table for dine-in customers who want to add drinks or food to their tables after receiving their initial order. With CardFree’s Text-to-Pay solution, customers that phone-in orders will also have the ability to pay via mobile, eliminating the need to give credit card information over the phone. Text-to-Pay enables restaurants to send text links to consumers to initiate and complete payment in seconds.

“We’ve chosen to partner with a mobile platform like CardFree because they have the most comprehensive contact-free solutions in the market for both on and off-premise. We have multiple ways that our guests can access Torchys — dine-in, mobile, online ordering as well as phone orders – and CardFree has a contactless solution for each consumer use case so we can meet the needs of our guests,” says Scott Hudler, Chief Marketing Officer for Torchy’s. “It’s ideal to have one partner to work with across the board for all order and pay needs from both a cost and ease of operation standpoint. We couldn’t be more pleased to launch this across all of our restaurants nationwide.” 

CardFree’s contactless services include Pay@Table, which enables dine-in customers to pay their bills without waiting for the check, Order@Table, which enables ordering via mobile and Text-to-Pay, which can be used for both phone-orders and drive-thru mobile payments. These services have seen triple digit growth on a monthly basis in 2020. 

Through these comprehensive services, CardFree is setting up restaurants for success in both the current climate of hypersensitivity for heightened health & safety protocols, and also the long game by creating a more efficient and seamless dining experience for consumers as well as a better bottom-line for restaurant operators. Restaurants using Cardfree have seen an overall increase in customer confidence based on their contactless dining experience, with approximately 70% of all customers at CardFree restaurants returning for second visits. 


About CardFree

CardFree provides the only integrated solution to mobilize and enhance the customer experience for maximum ROI. Our award-winning platform provides end-to-end services to engage consumers with offers, loyalty, order ahead and payments. Headquartered in San Francisco, the company has been recognized 

as a “Fierce 15” company by Fierce Wireless, as having the Best Mobile Merchant Platform by Frost & Sullivan and as Best Mobile Start-up by the MEA Awards. For more information, please visit or contact

About Torchy’s Tacos

The Torchy’s Tacos story began over a decade ago in Austin, Texas, when a man with a dream bought a food trailer and a vibrant red Vespa. Mike Rypka, founder of Torchy’s Tacos, built a menu out of experimental tacos that were coined by fans as “damn good.” Today, Torchy’s Tacos has more than 80 locations across Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Kansas that are committed to serving only the highest quality ingredients. By living the Damn Good mantra, Torchy’s Tacos is always innovating to deliver the most unique tacos, coveted queso and refreshing margaritas in the taco game, including the Taco of the Month, an untraditional taco offering that keeps taco junkies coming back for more. Visit follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for more information on Torchy’s Tacos.  

For PR/media inquiries, please contact:

Daphne Barahona 

Modern Currency PR