Hold the pickles, but pass the plastic.
More fast-food restaurants are accepting credit cards. McDonald's and Burger King remain lukewarm, but many other takeout and quick-service chains are finding virtues in credit cards. Average purchase amounts tend to go up, and cash-handling costs come down.
In the $105 billion fast-food industry, credit cards are still recovering from historical disadvantages. Transactions used to take too long, and the fees charged by processing banks cut into profit margins.
But authorization and settlement technologies are vastly improved, networking costs have come down, and the stores are more receptive to payment alternatives, including debit and stored-value cards.
"The competitive factors are really pushing fast-food companies," said Fred P. Gore, senior vice president of MasterCard International. Companies that accept cards "will have an incremental advantage in retailing as well as bringing new customers to the store."
Fast food is one of the new categories of card acceptance-others include the grocery and health care industries-where the MasterCard and Visa associations have pursued growth in recent years.
Fewer than 1% of fast-food sales are on credit cards, but Visa U.S.A. reported a 78% jump in 1997, to $178 million, and MasterCard, 90%, to about $44 million.
"Some of the regional chains are getting onto this bandwagon," said card industry consultant Stanley Anderson, president of Anderson & Associates.
Last September, Pizza Hut became the first pizza chain to accept credit cards nationally. Little Caesars announced a pilot for its 41 Utah stores in March.
Armen Khachadourian, Visa senior vice president of market development and acceptance, said that, because turnover is high among delivery people, pizza retailers like the security of credit card transactions.
"This is an environment where home delivery has been the impetus to accepting cards," Mr. Khachadourian said.
Consumers' tendency to spend more when paying with cards rather than cash "has always been a tremendous draw to people in the fast-food industry," Mr. Khachadourian said.
In a recent American Express Co. test at 55 Arby's Roast Beef stores in Texas, the average card sale was $10, 72% more than the average cash transaction.
"We've got all the rationales why cards are the right thing to do," said Tracey Fulmer, director of new industry development at American Express. "Now it's a matter of getting in and talking to" potential customers.
One of the biggest signings among the hamburger chains has been Sonic Corp. of Oklahoma City.
"We believe there is a growing trend toward less cash and more emphasis on convenience," said Pattye Moore, senior vice president, brand development and marketing, at Sonic. "We have seen higher average checks and incremental sales."
Still, the industry titans are not sold. Burger King tested credit cards and found that they "slow down the speed of service," said Kim Miller, a spokeswoman for the Miami unit of Grand Metropolitan PLC of London.
"Customers who are using the cards and those behind them get annoyed," Ms. Miller said.
Burger King and McDonald's have shown some interest in smart cards. Both have been active in Visa Cash and Mondex trials, intrigued by the ability to automate cash-handling and eliminate theft.
Burger King is preparing for a major experiment with stored-value cards in the Long Island suburbs of New York. Chase Manhattan Bank will issue Mondex cards for the test.
On-line debit attuned some chains to card acceptance. Carl's Jr. introduced debit card acceptance in California in 1989, and the six major regional electronic funds transfer networks are coordinating efforts to sign fast-food companies.
A handful of Burger King and McDonald's outlets accept credit cards, primarily in tourist areas and airports where consumer demand is stronger.
A McDonald's in New York's financial district has accepted credit cards for six years, but the site is far from typical. It caters to tourists and Wall Street workers and has a stock ticker and a tuxedo-clad cocktail pianist.
But the restaurant does not trumpet its card acceptance. There are miniature American Express, MasterCard, and Visa decals on the bottom of a window at the entrance. The store handles about 10 card transactions a day, said manager Alberto Cruz.
He perceives "no time difference between cash and credit" and calls credit cards "the thing of the future" for fast food.
Mr. Khachadourian of Visa said telecommunications advances have reduced authorization times to as little as eight seconds-making credit card sales "just as fast as cash, if not faster."
At the corporate level, said Mr. Anderson, the consultant, who is based in Arvada, Colo., McDonald's would "have to see a significant demand from the customer in order to justify the process of system integration" for credit cards.
Retailers would have to not only upgrade point of sale systems but also educate clerks on the nuances of authorization and fraud prevention, said Paul Martaus, president of Martaus & Associates, Clearwater, Fla.
Mr. Gore said MasterCard has made "sizable investments in upgrading our infrastructure and the way we route the transactions" to card-issuing banks.
"For fast-food companies, it's not about spending more," Mr. Gore said. "It is to see how-and if-they can make that incremental visit."
To encourage repeat traffic-as much an aim for restaurateurs as incremental ticket totals-American Express is planning a pilot with Arby's that gives card members a free 32-ounce drink when they use the card and make a return visit.
Donna Embry, senior vice president of Vital Processing Services of Tempe, Ariz., said fast-food outlets on college campuses may be incubators for wider credit card use and acceptance.
Those franchises "helped train the merchants to be more trusting of the technology," Ms. Embry said.
They have also "trained a whole market to use plastic rather than cash."