Paige Cantlin was waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory in downtown Baltimore while she was an undergraduate at the Johns Hopkins University when she confronted an age-old problem in the food service industry: customers who grow impatient when waiting to pay or split their checks.
Several years later, Cantlin developed a smartphone app to expedite the payment process, making it easier for both diners and servers, while doing some good on the side. While the app was a class project for her MBA at Johns Hopkins, it showed enough promise that she quit a full-time finance job to pursue it.
Called Full Society, the app is out in beta, or test format, and a formal launch is planned for April.
The app allows diners to pay or split their check and tip without having their server process the payment. The app is also pitched as socially conscious, offering patrons the opportunity to donate money through the app to one of a small number of local food-related charities.
"That was the biggest reason why we were willing to make the leap and quit our jobs," said Cantlin, 28. "We want people to think differently about how they eat. We thought it could make a huge difference in food insecurity in our country so we thought we had to do it."
The project has garnered a $25,000 grant from business incubator Accelerate Baltimore and has raised more than $26,000 in crowdfunding on Indiegogo.
There are eight Baltimore restaurants in the beta launch, including some of the city's trendier restaurants such as Alma Cocina Latina, Birroteca and My Thai, Cantlin said. There are 60 presold for the formal launch in the spring, she said.
Brad Wales, the owner of My Thai, said a glitch had kept the app from working properly so far in the restaurant, he said. But he called the app a "great idea" and said he was looking forward to participating.
"Sometimes when you have a busy spell or something there's only so much you can do, and it allows the customer to take things into their own hands and pretty much help themselves," he said.
Cantlin said the problem was the app's connection with My Thai's point-of-sale software and that they were working to fix it. It was the only such issue at any of the beta restaurants, she said.
The owners of Birroteca and Alma Cocina Latina did not respond to a request for comment.
In the initial launch, restaurants that partner with Full Society will place a placard at each table with the table number on it, so patrons can find their checks in the system. In later iterations, plans call for the placard to be swapped for a beacon under each table that would connect wirelessly with smartphones.
Restaurants would pay $49 a month to use the app, while it would be free for patrons. Full Society also offers to process credit card payments for restaurants for 2.5 percent of the total, a percentage Cantlin said is competitive with what major financial institutions charge for processing. No fees would be taken out of the donations to charity.
Cantlin began developing the app more than a year ago for a class project while getting her MBA. An adviser with Baltimore investment management firm Brown Advisory, Cantlin quit her job to work on the app, moving from Harbor East to Hampden to save money.
"Baltimore has a good network of people here who have reached out and helped us," she said. "But it's not easy to make that choice."
John Zuknick, the program manager at the University of Baltimore's Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, said startup companies should aim to solve problems, putting them in the categories of "headache" or "migraine" problems. A company that can solve a more serious "migraine" problem, will be more successful, he said.
Given how annoying it can be to wait for the check and pay at the end of a meal, coupled with the charitable donation aspect, Zuknick said Full Society could be solving a "migraine" problem.
"When those places are packed, sometimes it takes forever for the waiter to come over," he said. "And I do believe in giving back. I think that's a great idea."
Full Society's millennial-driven management team is likely gearing the app toward fellow millennials, who Zuknick said are more interested as business owners in charity and giving back to society.
"A lot of the businesses that come through here, they're more interested in giving back than making money," he said. "Baby boomers are all about maximizing shareholder value."
While Full Society has signed up some nonprofit beneficiaries, it's still working to sign others, including Moveable Feast, a nonprofit that serves meals to those with HIV/AIDS; and Helping Up Mission, which serves homeless men, with a focus on homeless veterans.
Paul's Place, a soup kitchen that provides meals for people in Southwest Baltimore, has so far gotten more than $600 in donations through the app, said Executive Director William McLennan. Most of that was from a single $500 donation, he said.
"We're thrilled," McLennan said. "I think people realize when you're in a trendy restaurant how fortunate you are to eat out and not everyone can. And this way you can provide a meal for someone."
Cantlin said they hope the app will help inspire that attitude.
"We want to change the culture around how people go out to eat," she said. "It seems like we could make a culture of giving back as well, and that's what our goal is."