Chick-fil-A restaurants in Florida, Indiana, Georgia, Virginia, and Maryland have pivoted to a cashless business model, according to Restaurant Dive. The switch is an effort to stop the spread of coronavirus as Chick-fil-A continues to operate takeout, delivery, and drive-thru and dining rooms remain shuttered.
The move also reignites the debate around cashless business models. On the one hand, an all-digital payment model makes for more precise accounting and safer places to work (you can’t rob a handheld scanner like you can a til.) The other side of the argument is that cashless models discriminate against the millions of underbanked and unbanked individuals who may not have a checking account and need to use cash for their transactions. Some places have outright banned the model, among them NYC, Philadelphia, and the entire state of New Jersey.
That was pre-pandemic, though. In recent weeks, other restaurants besides Chick-fil-A have also moved to cashless models in response to COVID-19, including the Castellucci Hospitality Group, which operates several restaurants in the Atlanta, GA area, and the Tender Greens chain.
Prior to the pandemic, the argument over cashless business seemed fairly cut and dry: the benefits of the model (speed, convenience) didn’t outweigh the downsides (classism).
But no one needs a crystal ball to understand that this global health crisis we’re in will permanently change many of our shopping and eating habits away from the house. Even when restaurant dining rooms open again, it’s likely that tables will be spaced much farther apart, cleaning and sanitizing standards will be twice as rigorous (and they were already pretty rigorous), and large restaurant chains will implement other ways of convincing customers they can order safely. Contactless delivery is already here to stay. It’s not difficult to imagine cashless payments will also stick around in some states — though perhaps not without great debate.
Of course, swiping a debit card or paying with a mobile phone won’t ensure a completely germ-free experience, which is why we may see a lot more chains pushing harder for customers to use their mobile apps. On Chick-fil-A’s website, for example, customers are “encouraged to utilize mobile ordering and mobile payment through the Chick-fil-A app.” We may also see brands start to funnel more money into more robust mobile platforms that reward customers for ordering and paying through the app, much like Starbucks does.
None of that solves the fundamental problem with cashless payments, and not even a global pandemic will magically make it possible for millions of people to get bank accounts. Even so, the current situation we’re in may shift the weight of this particular debate in the coming months, for better and for worse.