Andy Lim and Corey Fiala started their company as a favor to a buddy. Their friend was in the restaurant business, and he hated his company’s traditional point-of-sale system. Any time he needed an update, an employee would have to come onsite, update the software and install any hardware. 

So they got the developers’ pack from Apple and began working on an app. They ultimately developed the first point of sale system in the app store, POSLavu. And then it took off on its own as customers kept downloading the program for their iPads. "People just started finding it," said Ben Harrison, senior vice president of design and marketing for the Albuquerque-based company.

Apple’s tablet product, and other tablets, could well revolutionize restaurant point of sale systems, enabling small restaurants and other retailers to build the business as they grow. The systems took hold in the restaurant business first in food trucks, where the mobility is highly valued, but they’ve gained a spot in fine-dining restaurants where the tablets’ sleek design and their features—such as more informative wine lists—work well. 

But the systems are starting to trickle down into lower-priced concepts, including fast-food restaurants, as well as other retailers. There are also indications that bigger chains could start replacing their POS systems with tablets. "The space is picking up ground," Harrison said.

Tablets and touchscreen POS systems have slowly made their way into restaurants in recent years, but app-based providers promise to make the process easier. They enable restaurants to buy the hardware themselves, download the app, and use card readers to take credit cards. 

Some of the systems have their roots in the restaurant industry. Seth Harris is a former restaurateur, having worked his way up from bartender to the managing partner of a restaurant company. Harris began working on the program Breadcrumb POS in January 2011 and had the application at work in a restaurant by the following March. He then made sure it worked. "I lived at the restaurant for four-and-a-half months, open to close, seven days a week," he said. Breadcrumb was in 15 to 20 locations before it went into the app store, where it got more customers and the attention of Chicago-based Groupon, which acquired the New York-based company in May of last year. 

The POS systems are both flexible and scalable. In a full-service concept, they can be stationed at terminals where wait staff access them, or the wait staff can tote them along to take orders and payments. They can also be set up at the tables for a tabletop ordering system. 

Another emerging POS system that uses iPads is ShopKeep POS. The company was started by Jason Richelson, who owned a grocery and wine store in Brooklyn and began looking for a cloud-based POS system in 2008 after his previous system broke down during the middle of the day. When he couldn’t find such a system, he developed ShopKeep.

And lest you think these programs are limited to restaurants and retailers, they’re not: one of POSLavu’s first franchise customers is the 10-unit Pole Position Raceway—a growing chain of indoor go-kart franchises. In that case, the company built onto the software so it could integrate with the company’s transponders that track customers’ lap times.

Retailers are also increasingly using tablets and phones as their POS systems, enabling employees to walk through the store to provide more service, rather than leaving them chained to a register.

The charges are typically monthly service fees and depend on the number of units. The software can be downloaded for free. Breadcrumb, for instance, charges $99 per month for the first iPad, $199 for up to five, $399 for up to 10, and unlimited iPads is $499 a month. 

POSLavu charges up-front license fees ranging from $895 for one terminal and a small number of devices, to $3,495 for a license and a $99.95 hosting fee for a system with 10 terminals and an unlimited number of devices.