Illustration by Stephanie Rudig
Illustration by Stephanie Rudig

Georgetown’s vegetarian taco restaurant Chaia is weighing a tough call that many of the region’s fast-casual eateries will grapple with as an already swollen market becomes even more saturated with competition.

Should it go cashless to streamline operations and reduce customer wait times? Or should it continue to accept cash in order to make its healthy food more accessible to all Washingtonians?

“The reason not to is there are folks that don’t have a credit card and they can’t eat,” says Chaia co-owner Bettina Stern. “I don’t want to cut people out. That’s why we haven’t done it.”

In D.C., 11.8 percent of all households are unbanked, meaning they don’t have access to traditional savings or checking accounts, according to a Prosperity Now 2016 scorecard. And another 24.8 percent of District households are underbanked, bringing the total percentage of households who might have trouble swiping or inserting a card at a register to more than 36 percent. Compare that to 27.7 percent nationwide.

Despite these statistics, Stern is torn because one of the chief reasons fast-casual restaurants cite for eliminating cash is theft prevention. “It’s safer for our staff, safer for the books,” Stern says. “Ultimately, since we are a fast casual, there is the speed factor, but for me it’s more about the safety. I’m a New Yorker, so I’m innately aware—my antenna is up on theft and personal safety.” 

Just across the street from Chaia is Dog Tag Bakery, which experienced a break-in this year. Someone tried to enter through an unlocked window in May but was spooked by a restaurant worker, according to both the police report and a Dog Tag representative. 

And it’s not an isolated incident. There have been 27 robberies and 18 burglaries at restaurants in the District since the start of 2017, according to preliminary data from D.C. police. Last year those numbers were 86 and 79, respectively. 

Sweetgreen, the salad company founded by Georgetown alumni that has more than 60 stores across the country, is one of the largest chains to go cashless thus far—making the controversial switch in March for its Maryland, D.C., and Virginia locations. 

Though Sweetgreen declined interview requests, company officials have previously cited theft prevention and eliminating the cost of using armored cars as the reasons for the change. 

Meanwhile, two separate inside jobs triggered another local casual chain to eliminate cash in November 2015. “We had two very serious cases of theft by our store managers,” says Kevin Thompson, chief financial officer of Jetties. The sandwich, soup, and salad spot with six restaurants in the D.C. area also operates two locations of taco-slinger Surfside.

“One happened in 2014, where we were tipped off by an employee that something fishy was going on,” Thompson says. A manager had been stealing hundreds of dollars a day for months. The following fall, a customer raised a red flag about a different manager who was doing something similar.

That’s when the conversation began about going cashless. “We talked about it intensely, and there were a lot of strong opinions,” Thompson says. “We knew we’d lose business and piss off customers, but in the end, we decided it was something we were going to do.” 

Sweetgreen and Jetties estimate that cash customers accounted for about 10 percent of their business, and Chaia’s Stern says that’s true of her business too. “Even before we stopped taking cash, we saw the percentage of [cash] revenue drop from 40 percent to 10 percent in a span of a couple of years,” Thompson says. “We get some complaints, but it’s nowhere near as many as I thought—one or two people a week at each of our locations.”

Stern says, “I believe 10 percent of customers would initially be annoyed with it and we’d get some flack and lose a few people. They might come back. I hope they would come back.” But unbanked customers wouldn’t be able to come back. 

Linnea Lassiter, an analyst at the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, says cashless policies make healthy food even less accessible for low-income Washingtonians, many of whom live in food deserts across the river where they struggle to meet dietary guidelines for consuming fresh produce.

“I’m concerned with more and more restaurants, businesses, and shops going cashless because you’re systematically excluding a group of people who are already disadvantaged and disenfranchised,” Lassiter says. “And now they can’t have access to this restaurant?”

Lassiter believes that restaurants like Sweetgreen have calculated that their typical customer is not a low-income person of color who doesn’t have access to a bank account. “They’ll say, ‘We’re not in Ward 7 or 8, and our clientele is not low-income or African-American,’” she says. “People of color commute and or live in areas where there are Sweetgreens.”

Employment status, income, and race are the three biggest factors influencing whether someone has a bank account, but immigration status also plays a role because proper documentation is required to open an account. Language barriers are also a predictor. A final factor is geographic proximity to a banking branch. Like food deserts, bank deserts exist in D.C. too. And where there are no banks, predatory payday lenders set up shop, Lassiter says.

“In D.C., we know nearly 15 percent of black residents are unemployed,” she notes, adding that the median white household income here is $120,000 per year while the median black household income is $41,000 per year. And the disparity is worsening.

Recognizing how important it is to serve all diners, CAVA—another locally-based fast-casual chain with about 30 locations nationwide—hasn’t pulled the trigger. 

“We believe exclusively accepting cashless payments is not in the best interest of our customers,” says CEO Brett Schulman, whose Mediterranean chain has a team of data scientists who use technology to enhance customer experience. “We pride ourselves on being an inclusive company. If you’re trying to make high-quality, healthier food accessible to more people, you can’t exclude the people who have the least access to it.”

Pretty soon more fast-casual restaurants like Beefsteak, eatsa, Shouk, HipCityVeg, SKWR Kabobline, Little Sesame, &pizza, TaKorean, Buredo, Pow Pow, and District Taco will stare down the same decision, if they haven’t already. Competition for Washington’s time-strapped diners is fierce, and everyone’s looking to stand out or speed up. 

Competition also means there’s a smaller talent pool of trustworthy workers. Operations that accept cash typically require on-duty managers to handle accounting at the end of the night. Because Surfside in Dupont Circle is open 24 hours a day, it was cashless from day one for that very reason.

“We have no problems down there with not taking cash, and it’s a very diverse crowd,” Thompson says of Surfside. “On a selfish level, it’s made my life a lot easier. It streamlines everything.” 

Sweetgreen founder Jonathan Neman told Business Insider that eliminating cash speeds service by 10 percent, but Lassiter finds fault with taking such drastic measures to shave off a few seconds. 

“It goes back to that idea that people who make more money—frankly white residents, segments that have more privilege—their time is more valuable than people with less privilege.”

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