Why the Cash-Only Restaurant Must Die

By: David Infante


Credit: Shutterstock/Jennifer Bui/Thrillist

Most of us have been there. Dinner is over. The plates have been cleared. The check has been carefully reviewed — did we really drink four bottles of wine?! — and a credit card or two is snugly tucked into the leatherette sleeve. It’s all happening, until catastrophe strikes. “Sorry,” says the waiter with a tight smile. “We’re cash-only.”

The horror! The shame! The indignation! The cash-only restaurant is a clearing-house for a blushing, sputtering spectrum of middle-class ignominy. It condescends to cardholders with faux moralism. It grins oleaginously as they fumble through wallets & punch grubby buttons on corner ATMs. It is an inconvenience at best and a vessel of fraud at worst. For these reasons and more, I say the cash-only restaurant must die.

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To Americans who wolf down potato skins amidst the newly poured concrete of the nation’s sprawling strip-mall middle, the idea of a restaurant that categorically rejects plastic of all provenance may sound like a silly concept. Hell, you might not even believe such a thing exists. “That’s stupid,” you may think to yourself as you plow through a bourbon-infused something-or-other at your local Tchotchke’s. “Why the hell would I eat at a place that doesn’t take my triple-cash-back mileage hell-yeah card?”

For once, my dear bumpkin, we ponder a mystery of life from a shared perspective. Why the hell would I eat at a restaurant that won’t accept my exceedingly acceptable credit card? Actually, let’s hold off on answering that for a second. First, let’s examine the reasons why a restaurant might elect to reject plastic to begin with, shall we?

We shall! We shall!

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Credit: Shutterstock

The most widely circulated explanation for spurning cards is that the restaurant wants to avoid processing fees, which are the single-digit percentages that credit card companies take on each ticket. Perhaps you’ve noticed that restaurants that accept most credit cards still won’t take your American Express Black Card. Perhaps you’re a liar, and do not have an American Express Black Card. Black Card or nah, restaurants axe AmEx for the same reason they reject credit cards generally: the fees, man! AmEx usually takes a larger cut from the restaurant than its competitors. Restaurants looking to protect slim margins — and that’s most of ‘em — are wary of forfeiting any money to any credit card company, though, and going cash-only is a surefire way to avoid doing so.

Cash-only restaurants must ride the wave of new payment tech, or be swept away by it.

This may simply sound like good business, but it’s not. First of all, people spend more money with credit cards.

They just do. It’s, like, science.

So denying cards is denying your restaurant a looser-spending customer, which sounds like the very epitome of “not-good business.” Sure, you could… but why?

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Credit: Flickr/Thomas Hawk

Secondly, cash-only restaurants are swimming against a powerful current of consumer preference for non-cash payments. In 2008, the Federal Reserve’s blog inventoried a three-year stretch in the early aughts and found non-cash transactions had risen 4.6%; this extremely expensive study reportedly projects that by 2017, only 23% of US consumer transactions will be cash-based. These projections barely take into account mobile payment platforms like Google Wallet & Apple Pay, which have come on especially strong in the past 12 months. Ubiquitous cashless payment is on the way, and cash-only restaurants will eventually have to ride the wave or be swept away by it. As an anonymous NYC business owner told Gothamist in October 2014: “A business that can’t survive the 2% credit card charge is going out of business tomorrow anyway. That’s just a CDB: a cost of doing business.” Maybe “tomorrow” is an exaggeration, but sooner or later, successful restaurants will be forced to find a balance that includes processing fees.

The third big knock against the cash-only restaurant is the specter of tax evasion that looms over it. “Sticking it to the man can be a surefire way to get the taxman knocking on your door,” wrote Carla Spartos in a 2010 New York Post story on NYC’s cash-only restaurants. Gothamist’s same anonymous source is more blunt: “If a restaurant doesn’t take cards they are stealing money from the state (no paperwork means no sales tax trail). You’re giving the state money, their duty is to deliver it to Albany quarterly. Instead they steal it.” This certainly isn’t true across the board — only a tiny fraction of cash-only restaurants are fraudulent. But there are bad actors that take advantage of the shadowy cash-only shroud. Their existence puts on-the-level restaurateurs at a higher risk of getting slammed with an audit — meaning that they’ll need to invest more in rigorous bookkeeping to make sure they’re in the clear, should that day come.

There are a bunch of other reasons a cash-only operation is a chaotic menace to good restauranting — security, general organization, et cetera. Hell, there are even a few convoluted altruisms in support of it, I guess — like not allowing your business to participate in an inescapable cycle of consumer credit debt, or something. Whatever.

More: Why You Should Stop Tipping Your Server


Credit: Flickr/Michael Hilton

Until now, I’ve dealt in rational arguments, because rational arguments are important. But the very strongest case against cash-only chicanery is the simplest one: it annoys the ever-living crap out of me. No amount of logical artifice can convince me otherwise. Cash-only restaurants are an infuriating inconvenience to the customer. They don’t just want you to give them cash, they want you to want to give them cash. Cash-only restaurants are the needy girlfriend of the restaurant industry, and like the undateable slob that I am, I can’t quite shove off.

The reason I can’t quit is because cash-only restaurants continue to spring up like weeds in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods from coast to coast. More often than not, they earn an outsize portion of cachet and buzz compared to their peers, because they are “trendy,” “off-the-beaten path,” and “made out of barnwood that has been claimed, then claimed again.” Like self-important land mines, cash-only restaurants lurk amongst a city’s card-accepting majority, waiting silently for you to step on them so they can condescendingly tell you where the nearest ATM is, and while they’re at it, to go screw yourself, pal.

This brings us back to your original question, my dear bumpkin: who the hell is eating at these places?

We are. We city folk. We go to cash-only restaurants all the time, for one of two reasons. Either we didn’t know it was cash-only, and are now furious about this fact for all the reasons examined above; or we did know it was cash-only, and we chose it anyway because it made us feel bohemian, in-the-know, and capital-C Cool. “There is the cachet that comes with playing hard to get,” Spartos muses in the Post. She goes on to quote Bret Thorn, food editor of Nation’s Restaurant News: “You’re saying, ‘I’m so great, you have to come to the restaurant on my terms’ — and some people like that.”

We call those people capital-J Jerks. In their never-ending quest to equate exclusive experience with self-esteem, they inject just enough life into cash-only restaurants’ perceived stature to allow the backwards institution to march forward proudly. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t die. It should. Soon.

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