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Legal Tender Is Back in Season at Sweetgreen

Two years after going cashless, the fancy salad chain has reversed course and will accept cash in stores 

Sweetgreen exterior
Sweetgreen in Bethesda, MD.
The Washington Post/Getty Images

Well, well, well. More than two years after going cashless, fast-casual salad chain and patron saint of bougie desk lunches Sweetgreen has reversed course and will be accepting good ol’ legal tender at all 94 of its restaurants nationwide by the end of the year, Bloomberg reports.

Coincidentally, this change of heart comes on the heels of Philadelphia’s City Council’s decision last month to ban cash-free stores, becoming the first U.S. city to do so. New York City and San Francisco are among other cities that have proposed similar legislation; two states, Massachusetts and recently New Jersey, also have laws in place that require stores to accept paper currency (per the decades-old state law, Sweetgreen was never cashless in Massachusetts).

Sweetgreen did away with cash two years ago in order to appeal to convenience-seeking, card-toting consumers, speed up service, increase employee safety by reducing the chance of robbery, and eliminate the need to count cash or arrange for armored car pickups, according to the company’s December 2016 Medium post detailing the decision (“Welcome to the Future — It’s Cashless”).

For all the reasons named above, the number of cashless businesses — from fast-casual staple Dig Inn to burrito mini-chain Dos Toros — has grown in recent years. But so has the backlash. As Melissa McCart wrote for Eater last year, the very concept of cashless is classist and discriminatory, particularly against people who don’t qualify for a bank account or have ready access to credit. Others might prefer cash for privacy reasons, preferring to pay with paper currency without leaving an electronic trail.

Sweetgreen’s Medium post announcing the change yesterday (deliciously titled “Back to the Future — It’s Cash”) acknowledges the shortcomings of a no-cash policy: “Ultimately, we have realized that while being cashless has advantages, today it is not the right solution to fulfill our mission. To accomplish our mission, everyone in the community needs to have access to real food.” Co-founder and co-CEO Nicolas Jammet told Bloomberg, “As a business, we are in a very different place than we were three years ago, and that requires evolution.”

There’s a moral argument that banning cashless stores doesn’t necessarily address the core problems at the root of unbanked people being unable to access the online economy. “The reality is that cashless businesses cater to customers who can already afford $5 coffees and $15 salads and, therefore, are unlikely to be unbanked to begin with,” Lukas Thoms recently wrote in Medium’s tech publication OneZero. It should be unsurprising to learn that, at the end of 2018, 95 percent of Sweetgreen’s locations were located in predominantly white, wealthy zip codes, as Aaron Ross Coleman tracked and wrote for The Nation.

It remains to be seen whether this “evolution” back to the form of payment that has been used since the advent of capitalism (or the advent of trade, even!) will address accessibility for all or will serve only as a superficial Band-Aid. Problems of economic disenfranchisement typically can’t be fixed by a $15 bowl of arugula and rice, even when bought with cold, hard green.

(Updated with Sweetgreen’s new roll-out date, originally reported in statements provided to Bloomberg as September 30.)

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