For First Data, the way to investors’ hearts is through their stomachs

October 17, 2015, 2:00 PM UTC
Alix Colow. Assignment
Photograph by Robyn Twomey for Fortune

After six years as a private company, First Data returned to the public markets on October 15, launching the biggest IPO of 2015. First Data is little known among the general public, but it’s everywhere: The Fortune 500 company is the world’s largest processor of credit and debit card transactions (2014 sales: $11.2 billion).

But under CEO Frank Bisignano, First Data is reinventing itself as a tech innovator. Indeed, First Data’s big new pitch to investors is that it can arm small businesses with the same sophisticated apps, and Big Data analytics, that until now exclusively benefited the likes of Target or Dunkin’ Donuts. Its landmark product is the Clover, a family of point-of-sale devices whose first model launched in 2013. First Data is striving to position it as the equivalent of the iPhone for your corner deli and two-shop florist: In place of the standard “dumb bricks” that most restaurants and retailers use to swipe debit and credit cards, the Clover is designed to be full-fledged computer that not only processes transactions, but boasts a large and growing offering of business-friendly apps.

Today, no less than 106 apps are available to merchants, and another 277 in the works–and many of them cater to restaurants and other eateries. On the occasion of First Data’s big coming out party, Fortune took a look at some of these new tools.

Merchants can download offerings from the Clover “app store” for prices that typically range from around $15 to $100, and average about $30. Salon Scheduler ($14.99) reminds spa and manicurist clients of their appointments and prompts them to rebook if they’ve been absent for a while. Give Stock ($19.99 a month) data on how much sauce and cheese goes into a large pizza, and it will reorder ingredients automatically, based on how many pies your selling.

Angelo Vivolo, Lidia Bastianich, Fortunato NictoraRestaurateur Angelo Vivolo (right), with Lidia Bastianich and Fortunato Nicotra. Photograph by Kathy Willens — AP

Say you’re a restaurateur looking for a convenient way to tell your waiting guests when their table is ready. You could buy a bunch of those vibrating discs that buzz in their pockets when it’s time to be seated—but those clunky gadgets cost $70 each and frequently break. For $19.99 a month, Clover offers Waitlist Me, a feature that texts or emails guests when it’s time, so they can visit the antique store across the street while they’re waiting. (It can also signal when its time to offer repeat customers their favorite aperitif.) SKU IQ ($49.00) connects your Clover to your e-commerce site, and melds inventory, orders and pricing for both your store and your website.

The most popular app so far is an employee-management tool called Homebase (versions from $9.95 to $79.95). People check in for work by typing their pin, and a tiny camera takes their picture to ensure no one is faking. Homebase also sends messages reminding workers about their shifts. It’s been a boon for Angelo Vivolo, proprietor for 38 years of Vivolo, an Italian eatery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Before Vivolo replaced its brick with the Clover, waiters could change the check and tip amounts they’d entered earlier, so the system wasn’t secure. On the Clover, only the manager can make such changes. At the end of the evening, the manager is supposed to “batch out” by relaying total charges for the day to the restaurant’s processor, starting the long loop that ends when the cash is deposited in, say, Vivolo’s account. But tired managers sometimes forget to batch out at midnight or later, bolloxing bookkeeping. The Clover does the job automatically, relaying all charges at the end of each business day.

Vivolo also prizes the Clover’s detailed reporting as a management tool. “At the end of the night, I get the totals broken down by Amex, Visa, MasterCard. Clover tells me the individual waiters’ transactions, and the percentage tips they received,” he says. “I can see it in two seconds with the touch of a fingernail, by touching the screen on my iPhone.” Vivolo keeps a close eye on the revenues each waiter is generating, and the size of their tips: “If a waiter is getting low tips, there’s a good chance they’re providing bad service.” By the way, Vivolo know plenty about being a waiter. He exclusively placed the dishes before Pope Francis—“the Holy Father likes cooked not raw vegetables,” says Vivolo––at the nearby residence where the Pope stayed, and mainly dined, on his recent visit to New York.

First Data is also giving small business the tools to exploit Big Data, by furnishing the kind of analytics that, say, pinpoint the best locations for a new shop, or give proprietors a profile of their buyers and where to find more like them. Last year, First Data developed a product called Insightics with Palantir Technologies, a Silicon Valley data analytics firm that (among many other functions) identifies terrorists for the U.S. government.

One entrepreneur who tapped Insightics to make a crucial investment is Becky Sunseri, proprietor of Tin Pot Creamery, a gourmet ice cream purveyor in Silicon Valley. After working as a pastry chef at Facebook, Sunseri opened her flagship parlor in Palo Alto in June of 2013, offering such exotic flavors as salted butterscotch and coffee with cocoa nib toffee. The store was such as success that Sunseri decided to open a new one, and kept getting emails from folks in nearby Los Altos hoping she’d place one there. But Sunseri feared that many of her regular customers who worked in Palo Alto might live in Los Altos––a residential community about 15 minutes away by car––and buy their cones at the new shop, so that Los Alto would steal sales from Palo Alto.

Mike O'Hara (grandpa) with Michael and Josie O'Hara at Tin Pot Creamery in Palo Alto, CA Mike O’Hara (grandpa) with Michael and Josie O’Hara at Tin Pot Creamery in Palo Alto, CAPhotograph for Fortune by Robyn Twomey

So Sunseri––a Clover customer––needed to determine if lots of her Palo Alto customers did indeed live in Los Altos. Her Clover rep told her about Insightics (which, by the way, has its office just around the corner in Palo Alto). Insightics produced a “heat map” showing where the Palo Alto customers were coming from. “I was amazed,” says Sunseri, “only about 1% of them came from Los Altos.” Last November, she launched the second Tin Pot Creamery in Los Altos to great success, and her loyal following in Palo Alto only grew. Insightics also flagged that sales dropped sharply after 11 am, so she started offering mid-day discounts on popular items—advertising such favorites as building your own ice cream sandwich, sweetening sales in the process. “I didn’t know this kind of data existed for small businesses,” she says. “Insightics gave us the ability to capitalize on data we would never have the time or the finances to collect or analyze ourselves.”

Sunseri also likes the Clover itself. “I hated my old device,” she says. “It went offline all the time, and it was like pulling teeth to get someone to help me.” She says the app store “gives me the dynamic quality to make things better,” such as sending texts to her 30 employees to remind them about their shifts.

So far, Clover is selling well. Over 100,000 of the devices are now in service. Still, it’s too early to tell if the Clover will be the roaring success First Data foresees. Plenty of competitors, from Square to Revel Systems, are also offering creative apps. But the industry’s formerly lumbering giant is aiming to lead the way.

For more about how Americans are using apps, watch this recent Fortune video:


Clarification, Oct. 17, 2015: This article was updated to more accurately describe the collaboration between First Data and Palantir Technologies.