As the digital restaurant space continues to widen in the after-glow of COVID-19, conversations surrounding cryptocurrencies and the role they may play in the future of quick service are becoming more frequent.
And while cryptocurrencies haven’t gone full-on mainstream yet—crypto exchange platform Gemini estimated last year that roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population owned some form of crypto—the relatively small slice hasn’t stopped some brands with serious name recognition from weaving crypto into their business models.
Recently, Burger King partnered with investment platform Robinhood to run a promotional deal where members of the Royal Perks loyalty club could win “a side of cryptocurrency” when they spent $5 or more in the Burger King app.
Full-serve Wings and Rings also incorporated digital money into its approach, albeit from a very different angle. The Cincinnati-based chain announced in 2022 it would begin acepting $40,000 franchising fees in Bitcoin.
So, what does this mean for the future of crypto within the foodservice world? Will digital currencies find more support? Can customers expect their favorite brands to start accepting alternate forms of currency as payment? Not necessarily, experts say.
However, Shelly Rupel, who has spent years working in the restaurant tech space, says the emergence of cryptocurrencies is indicative of a shifting paradigm.
“I think it’s all within reach to become more mainstream,” Rupel says. “There's quite a few naysayers still in the [restaurant] industry … but it is within reach through technology that makes it accessible.”
Rupel, who previously owned a restaurant and worked for industry tech companies such as Toast, is currently leading the Devour Token project, which is a platform created specifically for restaurants. The project will benefit brands through initiatives like the Devour Restaurant App, which is designed to help drive revenue and repeat customers through incentives like dining to earn crypto.
As one of the founders and developers of the project, she is working to develop a platform that will include a cryptocurrency, branded NFTs (non-fungible tokens), interactive games, and integration into loyalty programs, all aimed at enabling restaurants to capture some of the digital market. She says operators don’t want to get caught playing catch-up like some were during the pandemic, when customer preferences demanded a greater digital presence.
“From a restaurant perspective, I think it kind of goes back to the pandemic experience with many from a digital standpoint getting caught flat-footed and having to pivot very quickly to adjust to online ordering,” she says. “A lot of them don't want that to happen again with something that is new [such as crypto].”
One of the largest barriers preventing crypto from becoming mainstream is the volatile nature of the currencies. While some virtual coins and tokens enjoy a somewhat more stable existence, the overall nature of the market is wildly unpredictable. The price of Bitcoin, for example, can rise and fall by thousands of dollars within a single day.
Rupel says that sort of roller coaster makes it difficult for businesses to accept cryptocurrencies as direct payment because they don’t know if what they took as payment one day will be worth the same the next.
That said, Rupel doesn’t think restaurants accepting cryptocurrencies as payment is a pipedream. Advancements in technology and more easily accessible options are helping to drive interest.
“I don’t think we’re talking hypotheticals,” she says. “I don’t think we’re talking long term.”
Rupel says restaurant owners and operators are being presented with an opportunity to capitalize on the excitement surrounding crypto and NFTs. Even though crypto isn’t widely accepted today, the marketing opportunities at hand are very much in play.
“Ignoring this opportunity would mean missing out on something that is cutting edge,” she says, adding data gleaned from customers’ online interactions is an additional benefit of opening up more virtual channels. “There’s an amazing opportunity there as well.”
To help make cryptocurrencies more mainstream, accessibility to the virtual currency is going to have to become less complicated, says Brandon Mintz, CEO of Bitcoin Depot.
Bitcoin Depot provides ATMs that allow users to buy and sell cryptocurrencies with ease. The company partnered with Circle K last year in a deal that brought crypto ATMs to select Circle K locations.
Mintz says the lengthy process of exchanging U.S. dollars for crypto coins and tokens is presently acting as a barrier into the space for many people. He adds creating a verified account on certain crypto exchange platforms can take several weeks, which severely limits the number of people using cryptocurrencies, whereas creating an account using Bitcoin Depot only takes a couple of minutes.
The Bitcoin Depot CEO says the partnership with Circle K will bring cryptocurrency to the masses by making the process of obtaining crypto coins more convenient. Circle Ks that provide the platform’s services can be located on Bitcoin Depot’s website.
“Let’s say I have a Circle K near my house, and I see this Circle K location on Bitcoin Depot’s website,” he says. “I’ll just pop in and I’ll get Bitcoin and be in and out in a minute or two.”
Along with making it easier for people to buy and sell cryptocurrencies, Mintz says the partnership will drive business to the C-store giant by attracting new customers to Circle K stores.
Currently, Circle K doesn’t currently accept cryptocurrencies as a method of payment, in part, Mintz says, because of how massive the business is. The number of acquisitions and different payment networks within the Circle K system would make it difficult to change the way they accept payments. Even so, he says, the move toward accepting virtual coins and tokens as payment isn’t far off.
“I believe that you’re going to see more retail companies and more e-commerce companies accepting it [cryptocurrency] directly.” he says.
Mintz points to brands like Pepsi coming out with its own line of NFTs as evidence that the mainstreaming of this virtual space has started to begin.
“We’re going to see trillions of dollars of institutional capital come into the space,” he says.