If New York City Council Member Ritchie J. Torres has his way, the growing trend of cashless restaurants — establishments that accept payment only in plastic and digital forms — will be snuffed out. Torres plans to introduce legislation before his fellow city council members that, if passed, would levy fines on any local businesses that refused to accept paper currency.
“I started coming across coffee shops and cafés that were exclusively cashless and I thought: But what if I was a low-income New Yorker who has no access to a card?” he says in a Q&A with Grub Street. “I thought about it more and realized that even if a policy seems neutral in theory, it can be racially exclusionary in practice. Therein lies the problem with card-only policies. I see it as a way to gentrify the marketplace.”
Torres believes the cashless business model is inherently classist and racist, as it excludes anyone who might not be able to afford smartphones loaded with digital currency such as Apple Pay or qualify for credit cards, let alone the roughly 22 million Americans who do not have bank accounts. “If you’re intent on a cashless business model, it will have the effect of excluding lower-income communities of color from what should be an open and free market,” he tells Grub Street. In 2009 Wall Street Journal story, Tony Zazula, co-owner of now-shuttered Commerce in New York City, explained, pretty much, yes, that’s right.
“If you don’t have a credit card, you can use a debit card,” said Zazula, whose restaurant was an early adopter of the model. “If you don’t have a debit card, you probably don’t have a checking account. And if you don’t have a checking account, you probably shouldn’t be eating at Commerce to begin with.”
Danny Meyer, the New York restaurateur who made waves in the industry by eliminating tipping at his restaurants, is the current face of the cashless movement. Meyer tested a greenback-free ordering system at his ever-expanding Shake Shack burger chain, but that experiment was abandoned following customer complaints. Nevertheless, he is implementing a cash-free policy at a number of his Union Square Hospitality Group restaurants.
Torres tells Grub Street he is optimistic New York’s progressive city council will pass his legislation, but he expects local businesses will “mobilize to oppose the bill.” For anyone who sees the impending fight through an apathetic lens, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter and critic, and former Eater NY editor, Melissa McCart made a salient point in her report on the topic earlier this year: “[I]n an era when an increasing number of restaurants no longer accept legal tender, it’s useful to think about who this system benefits most: the businesses and banks, at the expense of consumers.” Do businesses and banks really need more power? It’s a question more local governments may want to consider.