Where a Suitcase Full of Cash Won’t Buy You Lunch

Another drawback of cashless restaurants is the elimination of anonymity. Credit cards and apps leave a digital trail that can leave consumers vulnerable to security breaches, which worries consumer privacy advocates. A cashless environment also excludes the unbanked, nearly 8 percent of the population, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey.

Paying with cash can also help customers spend less and assign more value to their purchases, recent studies suggest.

The poor and unbanked are a concern for Sweetgreen, Mr. Neman said. Should the experiment move toward a companywide policy, Sweetgreen is considering solutions to make its products available to those without credit or debit cards. One potential answer is to install gift card machines in select stores where customers could pay cash for Sweetgreen cards, he said.


Jonathan Neman, a co-founder and co-chief executive of Sweetgreen, said its executives at first thought going cashless was “a harebrained idea.”

George Etheredge/The New York Times

Consideration for the unbanked was among the chief reasons Bozzelli’s Deli & Pizza relaxed its policy after opening a cash-free location in Washington this year, said the owner, Mike Bozzelli.

A small group of opinionated patrons led Split Bread, a sandwich chain with two locations in San Francisco, to change its cashless policy about two years after opening in 2012. “When we would get negative reactions, they were very, very strong,” said David Silverglide, co-founder and chief executive at Good Food Guys, the company that owns Split Bread. “Customer preferences are really hard to shift when it comes to something as ingrained as cash.”

“I think they were ahead of the trend,” Sam Oches, editor of the quick-service restaurant industry magazine QSR, said of Split Bread. Sweetgreen might have an easier time this year, because of increasing app use and the brand’s popularity. “Sweetgreen is very emblematic of the future of the fast-casual industry,” Mr. Oches said. “If anyone is going to make this work, it’d be them.”

Going cash-free, though, can seem to run counter to restaurant hospitality training. The hardest group to persuade of the benefits of a cashless environment might have been his employees, said Alan Bekerman, the founder and chief executive of IQ Food, a chain of healthy fast-casual restaurants in Toronto. When Mr. Bekerman started discussing his cashless plan with employees, they were aghast.

“We are bred to say ‘yes’ to everything,” said Mr. Bekerman, who opened two cash-free restaurants in February and plans to convert his three other locations by the end of the year. “But when we jumped in and did it, there really hasn’t been nearly as much chaos or hate mail or pushback or that stuff that we’re used to getting when we make changes as we expected.”

Jae Kim, owner of Chi’lantro, a Korean-Mexican fusion chain in Austin, Tex., said his company had always been “tech friendly” since starting a Twitter account so fans could find the location of his taco truck in 2010. After noticing the customers at his trucks and bricks-and-mortar locations gradually switching from cash to cards and services like Apple Pay and Google Wallet, he decided to make his establishments cash-free. “We grew with our customers,” he said.

New technologies often go hand in hand with cashless businesses. Two new locations of the London salad chain Tossed are cashless and cashier-free; customers check out using kiosks with iPads. To avoid confusion, Tossed installed extra lobby hosts, but “people don’t want help,” said Vincent McKevitt, the chain’s founder and owner. Mr. McKevitt has begun retrofitting his other 25 locations for cash-free transactions and self-service checkouts.

For Major Food Group, which owns restaurants throughout New York, going cashless is simply a business decision.

When the restaurant group opened Sadelle’s last year, reviewers raved about the bagels and griped about the prices of sandwiches, but said little about the cashless policy. “It is not an issue and is rarely ever mentioned,” Jeff Zalaznick, a co-owner and managing partner, said in an email.

“I believe very strongly in the cash-free movement,” Mr. Zalaznick said. “There is an immense amount of work, process and error that goes into taking, processing, monitoring and depositing cash. The amount of time and money that this costs is not worth the amount of business that is done in cash. The fees that you pay on the additional credit card sales are far less than the money you spend internally to take the cash.” Less than 8 percent of sales across his restaurant group are in cash, Mr. Zalaznick said.

Sadelle’s isn’t Major Food Group’s first foray into the cash-free movement. ZZ’s Clam Bar, which opened three years ago, is also cash-free.

“It is the way of the future,” Mr. Zalaznick said. “We are just embracing it.”

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