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Cash-Only Restaurants Are The Bane Of My Existence

By Anthony Todd in Food on Jul 5, 2016 7:24PM

The stuff I don't want to have to carry. Photo via Shutterstock.

Farmers markets. Street fairs. Food trucks. One by one, the last bastions of cash-only payment have been falling, thanks to a combination of cell phones, Square readers, Apple pay and the multitude of cheap, easy ways to take a credit card just about anywhere. But once in a while, I walk into an establishment that only takes cash and it never fails to make me slightly furious.

After an awesome dinner at Bar Marta (a reasonable restaurant that happily took my credit card), a group of friends and I decided to head to California Clipper, the beautiful classic cocktail and music spot run by Hogsalt, the group helmed by Brendan Sodikoff. The vibe was perfect, the cocktails were strong, and everyone was having a wonderful time. Until, through my slightly tipsy haze, I spotted some fine print at the bottom of the menu board: Cash Only. I didn't throw my drink, but I had fantasies of it.

Before people get angry at me, know that I understand that credit cards come with fees and restaurants operate on a pretty thin margin. I also understand that some customers for some classic spots, like dive bars, enjoy the continuity—the sense that things have always been done the same way. I'm also not trying to pick on the Clipper, which I really like. But for newer spots, there are plenty of negatives that might offset the slight expense of doing business, you know, the way every other business in the world does it. Let's run through a few.

1) You'll annoy your customers. Even if you do everything possible to make the transaction easy (convenient ATM, prices that are round numbers to avoid change), there's no escaping the fact that most people don't carry much cash anymore. Those "convenient" ATMs usually have fees, and the inability to start a running tab at a bar means that I'm probably going to have one drink and give up. And honestly, given the choice between a cash only spot and one that takes cards, I'm probably going to the one that takes cards, just for the sake of convenience.

2) You might lose money. If I'm using a credit card, I don't necessarily think about how much I'm spending. If I'm working in cash, I'm going to think about every drink I order while I do math in my head to make sure I've got enough green stuff on me. Using only cash is a regular tip that finance gurus hand out to get people to limit their spending and consumers spend about 12 percent more when they're using a credit card.

3) Your staff might get screwed. I don't know about you, but I tend to tip less when I'm paying in cash (see #2). It's easy for me to write a number on a credit card receipt, but it's harder to pull extra money out of my wallet, and often, if the change doesn't come in convenient denominations, it might affect the tip.

4) It seems oddly arrogant. As I said above, when a dive bar that clearly hasn't changed anything (or even cleaned the floors) for 40 years only takes cash, it sort of feels right. But when a newer restaurant, like Reno or Big Star, refuses to take credit cards, it almost feels like they're just doing it because they can. With lines out the door, why not do whatever you want? Because that's the exact opposite of customer service. The Clipper might be aiming for that classic bar vibe, but it's run by one of the most successful restaurant groups in the city and re-opened for business in 2014. It's not really an old bar in the same way.

If you're going to be a cash-only establishment, here are a few of rules I just made up so your customers won't want to throw their drinks at you: Plaster your cash-only status on every available surface, so that customers know what they're getting into before they order. Have a fee-free ATM or, like Parts & Labor, offer a free drink if you show your ATM receipt. Don't act entitled about it, or get annoyed when people pull out their credit card and are surprised that it doesn't work.

Oh, and consider giving it up and joining the modern world.