Illustration by Maddie Goldstein
Illustration by Maddie Goldstein

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BBQ Bus Smokehouse co-ownerChe Ruddell-Tabisola remembers Tuesday, March 17, well. On that day, the Brightwood restaurant welcomed carryout customers for the first time since Mayor Muriel Bowser suspended dine-in service at all D.C. establishments the day before. A woman paid for an $8.75 meal with two five-dollar bills she removed from her bra. “We did the transaction, then I started Googling if you could catch coronavirus from cash,” Ruddell-Tabisola recalls.

Much about the transmission of COVID-19 is unknown, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published guidelines, last updated May 27, advising restaurants to use contactless methods of payment when possible. The CDC also explains that, while it’s possible to get COVID-19 by touching your face after coming in contact with a surface or object with the virus on it, especially if you don’t wash your hands, the main form of transmission is still through respiratory droplets.

Ruddell-Tabisola is making the call neighborhood by neighborhood. While the new BBQ Bus location in Brookland doesn’t even have a cash register, continuing to accept cash in Brightwood was obvious. “The majority of our transactions are cash,” Ruddell-Tabisola says. “We have a lot of grandparents in Ward 4.”

His company could save $2,100 a year by eliminating cash, mostly from shaving off payroll expenses. Employees wouldn’t need to stay late counting money. But a couple thousand dollars isn’t incentive enough to alienate the restaurant’s cash-carrying customers, according to Ruddell-Tabisola. “Absolutely, we’re going to continue to take cash,” he says.

Not all restaurant and bar operators are as keen on exchanging cash during a pandemic. They say their employees have health concerns and want to limit direct interactions with customers. As a result, restaurants and bars are temporarily or permanently turning to contactless forms of payment, accelerating the march toward a cashless future that doesn’t include everyone.

One in five adult D.C. residents are credit invisible—a term used to describe 45 million American consumers with no credit score or way of paying with a credit card, according to Capital Area Asset Builders Executive Director Joseph Leitmann-Santa Cruz. His organization helps local low- and moderate-income residents build wealth and financial independence. 

Even debit cards aren’t a given. According to a 2017 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey, 8 percent of District residents don’t have checking or savings accounts. Another 21 percent may have accounts, but are considered underbanked because they rely on money orders, check-cashing agencies, and payday loans. 

Leitmann-Santa Cruz doesn’t think cashless businesses are trying to be exclusionary, nor does he discount the arguments for going cashless that predated COVID-19, such as increased efficiency and employee safety. “But it could still be seen as economic segregation,” he says, adding that it’s typically low-income families, people of color, and undocumented immigrants who don’t have access to mainstream financial services.

“Some restaurants will say, ‘That’s not our clientele,’” Leitmann-Santa Cruz says. “But that’s not the corporate citizenship mentality or role they want to be displaying. There’s no one-size-fits-all in a pandemic, but we cannot and should not allow those who have traditionally been underserved and marginalized to become further underserved and marginalized.”

Leitmann-Santa Cruz testified at a February hearing on the D.C. Council’s Cashless Retailers Prohibition Act of 2019. If enacted, it will compel all retail businesses to accept cash. There have been similar movements in neighboring cities—Philadelphia became the first city to ban cashless stores last year. Some companies reversed their cashless policies as a result. Homegrown fast-casual salad chain sweetgreen started accepting cash again in 2019, after being one of the first D.C. businesses to go fully cashless in 2017. 

At-Large Councilmember David Grosso introduced the bill with several colleagues. He says he didn’t hear enough opposition at the hearing to make him pull back, even now. The Committee of the Whole was set to mark up the bill before councilmembers shifted their focus to COVID-19 emergency legislation in March. 

“This pandemic has hit the most vulnerable among us the hardest,” Grosso says. “We should be working toward building a more equitable city as we reopen after this emergency, not further excluding those who are unbanked or underbanked. Businesses should certainly be taking steps that protect the health and safety of their workers and patrons, but prohibiting cash payments isn’t the only way to do that.”

While awaiting potential regulatory changes, bar and restaurant owners are locked in an emotional game of tug-of-war over how they’ll ask customers to settle their bills—with one side wanting to keep employees and customers safe and the other side looking to be as inclusive as possible.

Lulu’s Winegarden ownerPaul Carlson says although he’s always sought to accept all forms of payment, that aim is on hold during the pandemic. According to his tabulations, 99 percent of his customers pay with credit cards. Once his U Street NW restaurant reopens, customers will view the menu, order, and pay using GoTab, a Ballston-based startup. 

Customers scan a QR code posted throughout the establishment that will prompt an ordering system to launch in a web browser. “Anyone with a device with internet access can open it without downloading an app,” Carlson says. Payment is processed using whatever method is stored on the device. “We have a young demographic, so it’s likely they have Apple Wallet. You can order and pay in seconds.”

Red Bear Brewing Co. in NoMa started using a similar contactless method through Arryved, a point of sale system designed for breweries. It’s been useful for takeout and delivery orders, and co-owner Bryan Van Den Oever says they plan to continue using it as phased reopening begins and the brewpub can have walk-in customers.

“Everyone has a smartphone,” he says. “We ask that they download the Arryved app, which they developed just for this situation. They literally start a tab and pay right on their phone. We’ll confirm payment and pour them a beer.” Right now, Van Den Oever says they’re not accepting cash, and wonders if they’d be willing to before a vaccine becomes available. Customers will eventually be able to pay directly with credit cards again.

If Washingtonians want to dine or drink at Lulu’s or Red Bear in the early phases of reopening, it will help to have a smartphone and a data plan. According to the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of Americans had a smartphone in 2019. “All the cool dudes and dudettes creating apps in Silicon Valley, they’re focused on peers similar to them who have access to credit cards, and bank accounts, and smartphones,” Leitmann-Santa Cruz says. 

Going cashless is painful for Pow Pow, a plant-based fast-casual restaurant on H Street NE, where about five customers pay in cash per week. “In our neighborhood, it matters,” says chef and co-owner Margaux Riccio. “We reluctantly went cashless three weeks into the stay-at-home order, after reading about how cash was causing the spread among workers. We feel going cashless is a mistake and wildly inappropriate for our community that we strive to serve, however, the safety of our staff outweighed our personal beliefs.”

Currently, Pow Pow takes payment online and through its free app. Eventually, customers who enter the store will be able to insert their chipped credit cards into a reader or use Apple Pay. Even though they currently have a cashless policy, Riccio and her staff can’t help but make exceptions. Once, a quick-thinking employee asked a customer to seal their cash in an envelope, where it sat for a couple of days. Other times, they’ve given food away. “That’s not sustainable,” Riccio says. “But we will be cashless until we hear it’s safe not to be.” 

CAVA CEO Brett Schulman confirms the Mediterranean fast-casual chain went cashless, despite bucking the trend back in 2017. “We pride ourselves on being an inclusive company,” Schulman told City Paper at the time. “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.”

The pandemic has tempered Schulman’s conviction. “Looking at CDC guidance, we temporarily suspended using cash,” he says. The majority of orders come in through digital channels like the CAVA app. In store, the pin pad and receipt printer are on the same side as the customer. “We’re going to continue to revisit and look to evolve as the situation evolves, but currently the restaurants are cashless.” 

Two restaurant owners plan to arm servers with handheld mobile payment devices that interface with Toast, a POS system that’s growing in popularity. Daniel Kramer, managing partner at Duke’s Grocery, Duke’s Counter, and Gogi Yogi, started using them before the pandemic because they speed up service. Instead of a server making laps between the table and the POS terminal, they can swing by just once. “Give me your card, click the tip, bye,” Kramer says. He vows to continue accepting cash. “Ever since I was running a lemonade stand, the idea of saying ‘no cash’ never made much sense [to me].”

Anna Bran-Leis is planning to use Toast handhelds at Taqueria del Barrio in Petworth once she can serve patrons on site again, though she knows it will take some retraining of customers. Dining out isn’t the predictable dance it once was. Bran-Leis says she’s already getting blowback from individuals who don’t like scanning a QR code to view the restaurant’s menu on their phones. 

Her restaurant is currently cashless. “The majority of our customers aren’t paying in cash,” she says. “Based on that, the health of my staff was far more important than the possibility of missing out on some sales because I wasn’t going to take cash.” 

Other restaurants will ask customers to pay in advance. Dave Roubie, the managing director at Tabard Inn, says the hotel’s restaurant will be reservation-only when they first reopen. Customers will need to enter a credit card number when they book using OpenTable. “When the last touch happens with dessert or coffee, we’ll ask if they want dinner placed on the credit card on file,” Roubie says. If customers insist on a more traditional payment process, they can visit the “payment station” stocked with sanitized pens. The restaurant will accept cash or cards.

Mintwood Place in Adams Morgan will also use a prepaid system for reservations. Customers will order and leave gratuity in advance. General manager Gene Alexeyev says he’s struggling with what gratuity amount to suggest, given service will be streamlined. “You won’t get the fully transportive experience,” he says. “We’re going to fast-forward through some things together.” 

When they eventually take walk-ins, he predicts Mintwood Place will use handheld payment devices. Alexeyev says 99 percent of transactions—even at the bar—were credit card-based before the pandemic. He sees going cashless as a natural shift. “The pluses outweigh the minuses.” 

Even cash bars are going cashless. WhenIvy and Coney opened in 2014, co-owner Chris Powers says he and his partners elected to be a cash bar to keep prices affordable. “We wanted to sell $3 beers and hotdogs,” he says. “Looking at credit card fees, when your ticket average is so low, it wouldn’t have allowed us to run the bar the way we wanted to run it.” 

Credit card processing fees are typically between 1.5 percent and 3.5 percent per transaction, but some companies charge more for contactless processing, according toBrent Kroll, the owner of Maxwell Park wine bars in Shaw and Navy Yard. He’s been keying in credit card information manually so customers don’t have to swipe and sign. 

“You’re going to pay a higher fee per transaction because you’re trying to be safer and not get people sick,” Kroll says. “You could lose 10 percent of sales for being safe and keying in cards. The rich are getting richer, and they’re not giving any breaks during coronavirus.” 

Nevertheless, Ivy and Coney stopped taking cash when they reopened for carryout during the pandemic. “It’s notorious for being touched by too many hands and is an unnecessary risk,” Powers says. “Customers will not feel comfortable handling cash anytime in the future. I know our bartenders won’t. They don’t want to take cash from 15 people an hour.”

The dive will strive to keep prices low. “Being a cash bar has been part of the identity of the bar, much to the chagrin of some customers,” Powers says. “We spent six years establishing ourselves as cash-only. It is going to be missed, but in the scheme of things, this is a low-lift, easy thing to do to make people more comfortable.”