TableSafe’s Rail system keeps credit info secure at restaurants

TableSafe CEO Joe Snell demonstrates the company’s Rail payment system. Photos by Rachel Coward

TableSafe CEO Joe Snell demonstrates the company’s Rail payment system. Photos by Rachel Coward

The recent highly publicized data breaches at Target, Home Depot, Sony, and Premera Blue Cross created trepidation about payment security. Consumers now question whether their next purchase is going to lead to a drawn-out process of recovering funds from fraud. Businesses are challenged with staying one step ahead of criminals that have the ability to steal millions of dollars at the stroke of a key.

These security breaches have forced the hand of major payment providers to enable chip-based card payments, which are already standard in Canada and many European countries. The Payment Networks’ Liability Shift, which is associated with Europay, MasterCard, and Visa (EMV), is set to take effect in the United States in October.

Kirkland-based TableSafe, a restaurant-payment technology company, has positioned itself to capitalize on the major payment providers’ operational shift. TableSafe, founded in 2011, created a handheld device, called the Rail, housed inside a bill-presentation folder. The device allows customers to handle their own sale transactions at the table rather than waiting for a server to run their card and return with a bill to sign. When customers are ready for the check, they can flag down the server, who will drop the bill folder at the table. The interaction with the server is finished at that point, and the customer pays at the table. The payment card never leaves the customer’s possession.

TableSafe claims the device frees up servers’ time, which enables better customer service. The system also has potential marketing applications, handles customer ordering and preference tracking, and can serve as a platform for customer loyalty programs. Customers can split checks — by item, amount, or equally — with their fellow diners on their own.

But the real value for consumers and businesses, says cofounder and CEO Joe Snell, is security.

“Everything we do is point-to-point encrypted. We decided to spend an unbelievable amount of time and money to make sure this can happen,” Snell says. “We wanted to make sure our restaurants would never see or store a credit card number.”

Snell says the Rail helps ease two major security and liability concerns for restaurants. The first is the EMV mandate, which is top-of-mind for all retailers.

“In October, if you don’t have a certified EMV solution and someone uses a fraudulent card on site, the business is now 100 percent liable for that purchase,” Snell says. But if your business is set up to accept EMV and there is fraudulent activity, your business won’t be held liable by payment companies.

Joe Snell

Joe Snell

A bigger security concern for businesses, Snell says, is a big-data breach like Home Depot and Target experienced. Breaches like these occur because retailers store credit card information on point-of-sale systems or in a database that can be accessed by cybercriminals. But with TableSafe’s point-to-point encryption, payment information isn’t stored onsite; rather, it’s securely circulated to payment companies via the cloud. Snell says offering restaurants the ability to insulate themselves from breaches is fundamental to TableSafe’s value.

The earliest version of the Rail debuted to much acclaim in 2014 with a restaurant group in New Orleans, and the group’s use of Rail won it the National Restaurant Association’s Innovator of the Year award. But the product — which wasn’t EMV-enabled — eventually was scrapped by the company.

“It didn’t provide enough value, and the aesthetics weren’t good on it,” says Snell. “We didn’t push it too much because we made the decision to bet the farm on EMV. We stopped selling the old product because we would have had to pull them off the market and throw them all away once we incorporated EMV. And sure enough, EMV took off.”

TableSafe had to find ways to stay afloat during that early-to-market phase and attract more funding than Snell intended, which he admits was a frustrating experience. But, with a little luck, the bet on EMV paid off.

“The Target breach was one of the best things to happen to this product,” Snell says. “For some reason, that singular event galvanized the industry’s resolve to implement this October date.” Now, TableSafe hopes it can lead the way among competitors that are late to the game on EMV technology. The company offers low-cost subscription plans to restaurants and supplements its profits with third-party advertising opportunities on the device.

Emory’s on Silver Lake in Everett is one TableSafe customer. The restaurant started using the Rail in November.

“We were looking for a system like this for a long time. We wanted to keep our guests’ information safe,” says Robert Frost, director of operations at the restaurant. “You’re always hearing in the media about information and data getting stolen. … If the credit card doesn’t leave the guest’s hands, we’re not going to be liable.” Frost says his team has received largely positive feedback about the system from customers. But on occasion, he says, there are guests who don’t want to use it, and servers in those instances continue to provide the old payment option.

“I would recommend it to any restaurant,” Frost says. “It saves servers time, helps us turn tables faster, and it even saves paper. We don’t have to print out bills any more. But most importantly, I’m assured the guests’ credit card information is safe. With the new laws coming in October, these guys are ready for it, and our restaurant is ahead of the curve.”


Meet Joe Snell

TableSafe CEO and cofounder Joe Snell is a self-proclaimed “startup guy,” and his resume proves it. He founded Pantheon (which was purchased by Compaq and became part of AltaVista), (purchased by Blucora), and Tamarac (acquired by a private equity group). Snell has been recognized by the U.S. District Court system and King County Courts as a qualified expert witness in the technology startup field.

What do you do to unwind?
Adrenaline — riding anything that goes fast, whether it be a sport or race motorcycle, dirt bike, snowmobile, etc.

What device or app can’t you live without?
Remote email for business.

What’s your favorite book about business and leadership?
Management Mess-Ups: 57 Pitfalls You Can Avoid by Mark Eppler.

How do you balance family and running a startup?
I could do a lot better at this — I never miss a sporting or school event, but I rarely go with my family on vacation.

You’ve described yourself as a startup guy. What’s the biggest reason you’ve been successful?
Mostly luck. But I’ve been willing to make any sacrifice necessary to make each company successful.