The Complete Guide To Restaurant Credit Card Processing & The 5 Best Companies For Your Small Business
Whether you are launching a new restaurant or any other type of consumer-facing business, the question of how you intend to accept payment is going to loom large. After all, your choice of payment processor will have an effect on every single non-cash transaction you accept at your restaurant.
At the same time, the restaurant business has its own particular factors that will require specialized features from your processor.
With this article, we hope to provide guidance on the most optimal credit card processing options for both new restaurateurs and those looking to switch processors. But first, let’s discuss why it’s important for restaurants to have a merchant account in the first place.
Read more below to learn why we chose these options.
Table of Contents
- Why Do You Need A Restaurant Merchant Account?
- The 5 Best Restaurant Credit Card Processing Companies
- Honorable Mention: Restaurant POS System With Built-In Merchant Services
- Does Your Bank Offer The Best Restaurant Merchant Accounts?
- 8 Features To Look For In A Restaurant Payment System
- How Do You Choose The Best Restaurant Merchant Services?
- In Summary: The 5 Best Restaurant Credit Card Processing Companies
Why Do You Need A Restaurant Merchant Account?
When you stop to consider such aspects of credit card processing as transaction fees and the cost of card readers and other equipment, you might be tempted to forego a merchant account and operate as a cash-only business instead. While you can save money this way, there are substantial downsides.
For one thing, cash simply isn’t the preferred method of payment for most restaurant-goers. In a 2018 study, merchant services provider TSYS found that only 15% of diners at dine-in restaurants prefer to pay with cash. Inconvenience isn’t the end of the world, but remember that many of your competitors are taking cards.
For another thing, many consumers use credit cards that offer extra benefits or enhanced reward-earning on restaurant-related purchases. When looking for a restaurant to visit, these cardholders are likely to be looking for a place that allows them to rack up the credit card rewards with their dining purchases. A cash-only restaurant will be left out of that equation.
The 5 Best Restaurant Credit Card Processing Companies
Here is a compiled list of the best credit card processing companies for restaurants including Dharma, National Processing, Payment Depot, CDGCommerce, and Square. If you find our pricing descriptions to be confusing, read our complete guide to credit card processing rates and fees to familiarize yourself with how payment processing fees work.
1. Dharma Merchant Services
Dharma Merchant Services
Best for high-volume restaurants.
Dharma Merchant Services has long been one of our favorite merchant account providers. Why? Well, we love the fact that Dharma uses interchange-plus pricing and is fully transparent about its pricing structure on its website. We also love that the company sells its processing hardware directly rather than setting you up with an overpriced equipment lease. What’s more, Dharma’s reputation in the industry is second to none. In a field rife with opaque pricing, onerous contracts, and unscrupulous independent sales agents, Dharma’s honesty and integrity is highly reassuring.
The thing about Dharma that makes it particularly attractive for restaurant use is the fact that restaurateurs pay a discounted rate of 0.15% + $0.07 above interchange. There’s also a $20 monthly fee, a $20 chargeback fee, and you’ll have to pay a gateway setup fee and monthly gateway fees if you need a payment gateway. Beyond that, however, you won’t have to worry about incidental fees — no monthly minimum, no PCI compliance fee, and no additional fee for the virtual terminal or for mobile processing. You’ll also get a discounted processing rate if you process in excess of $100,000/month.
The only downside to Dharma is that you need to process at least $10,000 per month to see cost savings with a merchant account. For eateries that surpass this monthly threshold, however, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better payment processor for restaurants than Dharma Merchant Services.
- Interchange-plus pricing offered exclusively
- Month-to-month billing
- Discounted rates for restaurants
- Outstanding transparency
- Not recommended for businesses processing less than $10,000 per month
- Monthly fee
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2. National Processing
Best for restaurants that want to use the Clover ecosystem.
National Processing is another merchant account provider that exemplifies the qualities we like to see in a payment processor. The company features transparent interchange-plus pricing, a reputation for being honest and ethical (NP donates 10% of its profits to charity), and low-cost ACH/eCheck payment processing. (Don’t confuse National Processing with National Processing Company/NPC — an entirely different and much worse merchant account provider.)
In addition to the above, National Processing also offers a special pricing deal to restaurant owners. You’ll pay $10/month and a rate of 0.15% + $0.07 above interchange — a rate lower than that which they advertise for retail and eCommerce businesses. In addition, when signing up, restaurant owners can get a free Clover Go terminal, which accepts both EMV and NFC-based payments — both of which are important for restaurants to be able to accept.
If you don’t need a free terminal, your month-to-month contract won’t include an early termination fee (ETF). If you do opt to get a free terminal, you’ll need to sign a longer-term contract, and a $295 ETF will be part of your contract. Unfortunate as that is, the ETF will be waived under several common circumstances, e.g. if your business is sold/closed or if National Processing can’t meet or beat a competitor’s rates. In addition, while incidental fees are charged (a PCI compliance fee, chargeback fee, and batch fee apply), you won’t be facing account setup fees or annual fees. If you don’t opt for the free terminal, you should be able to buy your equipment outright instead of leasing it. Additionally, if you already have an EMV-compliant terminal, National Processing will reprogram it to work with its system for no additional charge.
- Interchange-plus or membership pricing
- Month-to-month billing
- Discounted rates for restaurants
- Full line of Clover terminals and POS systems.
- Free equipment may require a long-term contract
- Monthly fee
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3. Payment Depot
Best for restaurants seeking membership pricing.
Payment Depot is another merchant account provider for restaurants we’re happy to recommend. Like the previous two processors we’ve featured here, Payment Depot enjoys a sterling reputation in the industry, and the feedback from merchants is overwhelmingly positive. Again, this is not the norm in the payment processing industry, so when we find a processor that merchants actually enjoy working with, we take special note of it.
One thing that differentiates Payment Depot from the prior two companies featured here is the pricing structure. Payment Depot offers membership pricing, meaning that instead of paying a variety of fees along with marked-up percentages on your sales, you’ll pay a fixed monthly fee that ranges from $49/month to $199/month (depending on which of the four membership plans you choose) along with a fixed per-transaction fee of $0.05 – $0.15 (again, depending on your subscription tier). Typically, even the cost of the payment gateway is covered with Payment Depot, though you should confirm this when you examine your agreement with the company.
Under membership pricing, restaurants with a high processing volume stand to save money over traditional interchange-plus pricing, while restaurants with smaller processing volumes may end up paying more in monthly fees than they would otherwise pay under interchange-plus pricing.
We love that Payment Depot offers true month-to-month billing with no long-term contracts (and hence no ETFs). However, you do have the option of paying annually, thus saving you money on membership fees.
- Transparent membership pricing
- Month-to-month billing
- Free gateway and virtual terminal
- Not cost-effective for low-volume businesses
- US-based merchants only
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Best for restaurants looking for a scalable processor.
We here at Merchant Maverick are big fans of CDGcommerce for a number of reasons. We like the fact that CDGcommerce offers month-to-month billing with no long-term contracts and no ETFs. We like the fact that the company offers three different pricing schemes: interchange-plus pricing for merchants and restaurateurs processing over $10K/month, and simplified flat-rate/tiered pricing for those processing less than $10K/month. Higher volume restaurants can even get membership pricing. We like the fact that you get a payment gateway for no cost whatsoever.
Beyond all this, restaurant owners have particular reason to check out CDGcommerce. That’s because the company offers a host of restaurant-specific POS technology to help restaurants run smoothly. Here’s what CDGcommerce has to offer:
- Integrated reservation software
- Tip adjust
- Debit and small ticket discounts
- Secure equipment
- WiFi connection available
- Terminal connection included
- 24/7 live tech support (US-based)
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Best for low-volume restaurants.
Processing giant Square isn’t like the other processors listed here. While the above processors are traditional merchant account providers, Square — like PayPal and Stripe — is a third-party processor. Unlike a traditional merchant account provider that gives your business a unique merchant account after a thorough vetting process, TPPs give you access to a giant merchant account that all users of the service share. This means you get approved much more easily and quickly, but on the flip side, you run a higher risk of having your funds held or your account terminated. Read our article on avoiding this fate in order to protect your business.
The beauty of Square is that it offers so many different merchant services under its payments umbrella. You’ll get payment processing with Square Payments, a built-in payment gateway, a free POS, affordable card readers, invoicing, inventory management, developer tools, and so much more. You can even customize your Square app settings to accept tips, either electronically or on a printed receipt. You can also integrate with other POS systems if you wish.
As for Square’s fees, you’ll pay 2.6% + $0.10 per in-person transaction. No monthly or annual fees, no contracts, no ETFs — just one simple flat per-transaction rate. Or at least that’s the case if you use Square’s free POS, which should serve you just fine if you’re running a cafe or other relatively low-volume eatery. For full-service restaurants and bars that need a more robust POS system with restaurant-specific features, there’s Square For Restaurants.
With Square For Restaurants, you’ll get your first station (which runs on a standard iPad) for $60/month, with each subsequent station costing an additional $40/month. You’ll still pay the standard Square in-person processing rate of 2.6% + $0.10 per transaction.
- Predictable flat-rate pricing
- No monthly fees
- Massive feature set
- Affordable readers
- Account stability issues
- Advanced features can get expensive
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Honorable Mention: Restaurant POS System With Built-In Merchant Services
We thought we’d feature an additional service that combines a restaurant-focused POS with a merchant account.
Toast is both a POS system and a credit card processor.
On the processing side, you’ll be paying a simple flat rate of 2.49% + $0.15 per transaction. Very easy to wrap your head around. The POS starts at $79/month, online ordering is an additional $50/month, and the hardware packages start at $899.
Toast’s POS is built for the restaurant industry and has a lot to offer restaurants and bars, including a purpose-built tableside ordering device called Toast Go, mobile ordering, check splitting, customized tip percentage options, menu creation, digital receipts, time tracking, and advanced reporting, among other features. And for an extra $25/month, you can get access to Toast’s fully-integrated loyalty program.
What truly differentiates Toast, however, is its extraordinary devotion to customer service, offering extensive technical support and training material — all for free. It’s one of the major reasons why we’re such fans. See our Toast POS review to get the whole story.
Does Your Bank Offer The Best Restaurant Merchant Accounts?
Rather than going out and finding a merchant account provider on your own, you might be tempted to get a merchant account from your existing bank. While this may sound like an easy and convenient way to go, here’s why you may want to reconsider.
For one thing, banks are rarely as transparent about their merchant account pricing as most of our top-rated non-bank merchant account providers. This is particularly true of the big banks. For another, banks don’t typically process payments directly for clients as the acquiring bank, acting instead as the middle man. Now, this isn’t a bad thing in itself — many of our favorite merchant account providers operate this way — but banks tend to resell products at a steeper mark-up than do the leading non-bank merchant account providers.
This isn’t to say that every merchant account deal offered by a bank is a ripoff, but it’s not typically the arrangement we prefer. Read Should You Open A Merchant Account With Your Bank? for a deeper look.
8 Features To Look For In A Restaurant Payment System
Here’s what restaurant owners need to look for in a payment system.
Excellent Tip Reporting
Finding a payment system with a robust tip reporting system is crucial because, without such a system, you might need to spend hours reconciling reports and dealing with payroll to sort things out. A solid automated reporting system will both save time and ensure that your business stays within the law.
Another reason why a customizable tip reporting system is so important is that state laws differ on how restaurant owners must go about paying credit card tips to employees. For instance, California, Maine, and Massachusetts (and a few cities in other states as well) are prohibited from deducting credit card processing fees from the tips of servers. In other locations, this practice is permitted. In some places, the law is unclear on whether this is allowed.
Competitive Amex Pricing
Unfortunately for restaurant owners, American Express typically processes for higher rates than MasterCard or Visa. Due to the fact that Amex credit cards are especially popular among consumers in the hospitality industry, you’ll nonetheless want to be able to accept Amex payments. That’s why owners of restaurants, cafes, and bars should look into a provider’s Amex processing rates when shopping for a payment processor.
To this end, you may want to select a processor that offers OptBlue pricing. OptBlue is a program that allows small businesses to accept Amex credit cards without paying the inflated merchant fees that would otherwise come with accepting Amex cards. So long as you process less than $1 million in Amex transactions annually, you’ll be able to get in on the OptBlue program if your processor allows it. Such processors include:
- First Data Corp.
- Global Payments
- First American Payment Systems
- EVO Payments
- Wells Fargo
You’ll notice these large processors are also often the back-end processors for other companies — which means those smaller processors can also offer you this pricing arrangement.
Many credit card processors will either have a recommended compatible POS to offer customers or, as is the case with third-party processors like Square (and certain traditional merchant account providers as well), an in-house POS. But what if you already have a POS and are simply looking to switch processors?
If this is you, you’ll need to investigate whether or not your preferred processor is compatible with your existing POS system. For this, a good resource to check is your POS provider’s website, which will often list compatible processors.
Month-To-Month Processing Agreement
Long-term contracts — and the early termination fees and setup fees that are often included in such contracts — exist solely to benefit the processor, not you.
Thankfully, the industry is trending the right way on this issue, and providers are increasingly offering simple month-to-month processing agreements that don’t lock you into using their services in the long term. Given that merchant account providers now have to compete with the likes of Square and PayPal, neither of whom has ever offered long-term contracts, this process was perhaps inevitable. Nonetheless, we love to see it.
This isn’t to say a provider that requires you to sign a longer-term contract could never be a good choice for you. After all, this is only one of many factors you’ll be considering in your search, and some well-designed restaurant-oriented POS systems may be bundled with a payment processing service that requires a contract. However, all else being equal, month-to-month is the way to go.
24/7 Customer Service
If there’s anything you don’t need me to tell you, it’s that technology isn’t bulletproof.
Sometimes systems malfunction or crash. If and when this happens to you, you’ll want a provider that offers knowledgable, caring customer service — and not just during the “normal” Monday-Friday 9-to-5 working hours. After all, your system could go down at 7 pm during your busiest rush of the week.
We here at Merchant Maverick understand this, which is why we always lend considerable importance to the quality of a processor’s customer support when putting together our reviews.
Affordable Restaurant Credit Card Processing Machines
Businesses in food service require processing devices that cater to the particular needs of the industry.
Mobile card readers and tablets, especially ones that can accept NFC payments, are particularly useful in the setting of a restaurant/cafe/bar. At the very least, you’ll need a terminal that can accept EMV payments.
A good restaurant-focused POS will offer devices that can accommodate your particular needs. In particular, Clover offers a line of products well-suited to the demands of the industry, which is why a number of the processors featured in this article offer such devices. If the processor you’re considering offers Clover devices, that’s generally a good sign for you.
However, it bears repeating that when acquiring hardware, buying it outright — or entering into a finance agreement — is vastly preferable to leasing said equipment. Don’t let some sales representative strong-arm you into accepting a lease agreement. Such a lease could see you losing hundreds or even thousands of dollars — and at the end of the lease agreement, you won’t even own the equipment!
When it comes to credit card processing machines, just remember: Buy, don’t lease.
Gift Card & Loyalty Programs
One way to draw new customers and keep them coming into your restaurant is to offer gift cards and loyalty programs. It’s a low-cost low-hassle way to encourage repeat business and promote brand awareness.
Some such programs may be available through your POS; others may be available via your processor. Still, others are available through a third party. Read our article on gift cards for small businesses to get the low-down on how to implement a gift card program at your restaurant so you can get in on the benefits!
For even more information on finding the right POS for your business, read our new article on how to choose a restaurant POS system. We know this stuff isn’t easy, so we want to make sure you have as much pertinent information as possible!
While not critical to operations, some restaurants–particularly those looking to limit contact during the COVID-19 pandemic–may want to consider a service that offers contactless payments.
While the exact means of starting the payment transaction differ from service to service (pay by text, QR code payments, etc) the services essentially facilitate app-to-app payments using the customer’s stored credit card info. This can avoid queues and limit person-to-person contact. Not only that, it simplifies the receipt process since the customer will automatically have a record of the transaction of their device.
How Do You Choose The Best Restaurant Merchant Services?
We know that the process of selecting a payment processor is daunting and complex. What we hope you take away from this article is a sense of what to look for when choosing a credit card processor for your restaurant — as well as a snapshot of the processors and POS systems that, we feel, give foodservice businesses the best value for their money.
Want to learn more about taking your restaurant to the next level? We’ve got articles for that!
- Best Restaurant POS Systems For 2020
- The 8 Best Loans For Restaurants In 2020 (Plus Tips To Improve Your Chances Of Being Approved)
In Summary: The 5 Best Restaurant Credit Card Processing Companies
- Dharma Merchant Services: Best for high-volume restaurants. Highly-reputable processor with discounted processing rates for restaurants
- National Processing: Best for restaurants that want to use the Clover ecosystem. Top-rated processor offering a discounted restaurant processing rate and an optional free Clover Go terminal
- Payment Depot: Best for restaurants seeking membership pricing. Ideal for high-volume restaurants
- CDGcommerce: Best for restaurants looking for a scalable processor. Offers restaurant-specific POS technology with two pricing schemes for high-volume eateries and another for lower-volume ones.
- Square: Best for low-volume restaurants. All-in-one third-party processor with simple flat-rate pricing and a host of restaurant-friendly hardware and software