Illustration by Stephanie Rudig
Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

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Councilmember David Grosso introduced legislation today that would make it illegal for retail food establishments to go completely cashless in the District. The purpose of the bill is to prevent discrimination against customers who prefer to use cash or who do not have access to credit cards or other non-cash payment methods.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson and Councilmembers Anita Bonds, Brianne Nadeau, Vincent Gray, and Trayon White co-introduced the “Cashless Retailers Prohibition Act of 2018.” 

If passed, the bill would specifically make it to illegal to discriminate against cash as a form of payment for services purchased; post signs on the licensed premises that cash payment is not accepted; and charge different prices to customers depending on their payment method.

City Paper reported on the cashless trend last year and found that the policy cuts out D.C.’s significant unbanked population. At the time,11.8 percent of all households were unbanked, meaning they didn’t have access to traditional savings or checking accounts. Another 24.8 percent of District households were underbanked, bringing the total percentage of households that might have trouble swiping a card at a register to more than 36 percent. Nationwide that number was closer to 27.7 percent.

Grosso offers similar statistics in his introduction to the bill, saying 10 percent of D.C. residents are unbanked and an additional 25 percent are underbanked. He also believes cashless policies make it difficult for middle school and high school students to make purchases because they likely don’t have credit cards. “By denying patrons the ability to use cash as a form of payment, businesses are effectively telling lower-income and young patrons that they are not welcome,” he writes.

Employment status, income, race, and immigration status are the biggest factors influencing whether someone has a bank account, according to Linnea Lassiter, who spoke with City Paper in 2017 when she worked as an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. Language barriers are also a predictor. 

Sweetgreen was the first major local chain to stop accepting cash in March 2017. Others like Jettie’s followed in the salad company’s footsteps. The reasons cashless businesses provide for making the switch focus on safety. The proprietors believe that if a business openly states that it does not accept cash, it will deter would-be robbers and protect employees.

In Baltimore, for example, the owner of Park Cafe decided to adopt a cashless policy in 2017 after his restaurant was robbed five times in just four months. Barcelona Wine Bar in Atlanta made the same move after a robbery that resulted in the death of a 29-year-old employee. The D.C. locations of Barcelona Wine Bar are also cashless. According to police data, there were 86 robberies and 79 burglaries in D.C. restaurants in 2016. 

JRINK, a local juice company with six locations in D.C. and Virginia is a cashless business. Co-founder and CEO Shizu Okusa says for her, the decision came down to operational feasibility and safety. 

“When we had one location in Dupont it was easier to deposit cash, which was right across the street at Eagle Bank,” she says. But then the company grew. “At some of our locations, including one in Clarendon, it’s really hard for businesses to keep track of all of the cash that’s laying around. If you think about providing more access to your products in multiple locations, we want to balance with operational feasibility.”

Okusa also says multiple JRINK locations have experienced break-ins, including the Dupont and 14th Street NW shops. JRINK often operates out of other businesses like gyms or yoga studios, making it difficult for the company to have control over security. Okusa says her decision was not meant to be discriminatory. 

Should the proposed bill become a law, it will create a challenge for JRINK and other cashless restaurants. “We’d have to have new protocols, new equipment, and new staff training,” Okusa says. She has about 45 employees, who would all need to be retrained. 

Sweetgreen declined to comment, but the company has previously said that when they offered cash payments, only 10 to 15 percent of customers used cash.