Aaron Bateman pulled out a few $20 bills to pay for a taco lunch in the nation’s capital. To his surprise, his money was no good in the city where money is printed.
Surfside, a popular 24-hour Mexican eatery, doesn’t take cash. No cash means no register for robbers to empty out, no bills for workers to slip into their pockets and no change counting holding up lines.
The global cashless movement has reached Washington, where a growing number of fast-casual and other establishments are saying no to greenbacks in favor of plastic and mobile payments. Sweetgreen, the national salad chain, went cashless in most of its locations last year. Other cashless spots include a frozen yogurt shop downtown, a posh wine bar and a beer store. Soon, they may be breaking the law.
Critics of no-cash policies say they shut out the one in 10 city residents who don’t have bank accounts and undocumented immigrants who can’t easily sign up for cards. Some people also pay in cash so they can better track their spending or to avoid having their card information stolen.
Heeding these concerns, several lawmakers have introduced a bill to require retailers to accept cash.
“By denying the ability to use cash as a payment, businesses are effectively telling lower income and younger patrons that they are not welcome,” said Council member David Grosso.
His bill is among the pockets of resistance forming against the cashless trend, which has taken hold in countries such as Sweden and India where mobile payments are gaining popularity.
Similar legislation was unsuccessfully introduced in Chicago last year. Massachusetts has an obscure 1978 pro-cash law on the books, but the state retailers association say it doesn’t seem to be enforced and state officials haven’t offered guidance.
Companies going card-only say it makes good business sense.
Washington restaurateur Bo Blair, whose company Georgetown Events operates eight fast casual and three sit-down restaurants in the city, decided to experiment going cashless when opening Surfside in 2015.
Usually, cost-conscious small businesses operate cash-only to avoid card processing fees.
But cash also has hidden costs, Blair said: armored vehicles taking money to banks. An extra hour for workers to close out the register. Employees swiping money from the till. And some of their places had been robbed.
“Not having to worry about employees stealing or getting robbed is a huge lift off our minds,” said Blair.
Few Surfside customers complained and long lunch lines moved quickly, so Georgetown Events stopped taking cash at its seven other fast-casual spots, including the Jetties’ sandwich shop, where about 80 percent of customers were already paying with their cards. They didn’t make the shift at full-service restaurants where bartenders and servers like taking their cash tips home at the end of a shift.
Bateman, who tried to pay in cash at Surfside, said he was lucky his girlfriend brought her debit card with her so they could pay. The 22-year-old cook, who was on vacation from Norfolk, likes paying in cash so he doesn’t have to constantly check his bank account to avoid overdrafts.
“You have your money in your hand and know what you can do with it,” Bateman said. “It’s a little bit better money management unless you are on top of your account like every five minutes.”