Big brand coffee company Blue Bottle recently announced plans to experiment with a new cashless payment model, meaning customers would no longer be able to pay for food and drink with anything other than a credit card or a phone app. The coffee company is piloting the program across several cities, including Los Angeles. And while some business owners find the idea of going cashless to be a safe, constructive way to operate a small business, others worry that it’s an exclusionary practice that most negatively affects the most vulnerable members of society.
The recently-turned-cashless locations of Blue Bottle in Los Angeles can be found at Hayden Tract and in Playa Vista, Los Feliz, and Studio City, but they certainly won’t be the first places to lean into the practice. Other restaurants around the city have long done away with cash, including the original strip mall location of Petit Trois and the just-opened Hollywood location of Intelligentsia. National salad chain Sweetgreen has also famously eschewed cash, ever since a robbery in a New York City store led police on a chase that ended up with a cab driver being shot.
Indeed, safety is a primary point of contention for small businesses that deal in loose bills. Konbi in Echo Park has been cashless since first opening last fall, but recently faced some social media backlash for the practice after a customer complained on Twitter. Owners Akira Akuto and Nick Montgomery say that, while they never intend to alienate anyone, they do have very practical and progressive concerns — a service window that faces out onto the street, a tiny 500-ish square foot space, higher overhead costs — that make keeping an insurance-approved safe and lots of money on hand a real issue. And, they say, very few customers actually pay in cash anyway.
“It happens so rarely,” Akuto says. “We have [cashless language] on all of our signage, on our social media. It’s only happened two times where it’s been a real issue; the first time, the person next to that customer offered to pay on their card and get Venmo’d back. The second time, we accepted the cash and put it on an employee’s personal card.”
Montgomery does acknowledge that announcing a business as cashless from the outset is a potential barrier to entry for some consumers entirely, but adds: “I’m there almost every day that the restaurant is open, and I’ve never seen anyone walk up, see the sign, and leave.” Akuto takes a stronger tack, saying: “I think it’s a slippery slope to go after a discussion about how a restaurant needs to be responsible for who can eat there or not. The flip side is: Are we allowing restaurants that only take cash to alienate diners by selling, say, a $50 hamburger?”
“For a card-only business to make that decision,” Akuto continues, “in order to be sustainable and pay employees well, and then to be criticized for that? I don’t think it’s our responsibility. Maybe you should bring up as a larger issue with the developers and the gentrification that’s happening, at a political level. To hit a small business for that I think is the wrong angle.”
Other operators in Los Angeles feel differently, including Kyle Glanville of Go Get Em Tiger, who recently called Blue Bottle’s plans to go cashless “shameful” on Twitter, adding that he himself spent years of his life without a credit card, as do the millions of Americans that remain unattached to any bank, or “unbanked” as its known. Some are distrustful of large financial institutions for various reasons, others simply live on a cash-in-hand subsistence basis, and still more are either under age or are choosing to leave less of a personal record of their whereabouts for a variety of reasons, including those who have previously suffered from abuse, harassment, and stalking.
The city of Philadelphia recently became the first major American city to ban cashless businesses outright, while states like Massachusetts and New Jersey have enacted similar legislation in the past. New York City is considering a law similar to Philadelphia. For now Los Angeles has no plans to ban cashless businesses, though that could change in the future as more and more operators, from Blue Bottle to Konbi, take up the practice in restaurants and cafes every day.