Sweetgreen is the latest business to reverse its cashless business policy as controversy over the model grows. Yesterday, the fast-casual chain announced it would accept cash at all six of its Philadelphia locations starting July 1, and at all 94 Sweetgreen locations by the end of 2019.
One of the early supporters of the cashless business model, Sweetgreen stopped accepting greenbacks in 2016, calling the move “a win-win-win.” Going cashless, after all, meant less risk of burglaries, more precise accounting, and, most important, faster transaction times between store and customer. Legitimate as all those things are, though, they’re clearly not enough to stand up to the wave of backlash that at this point has become so big even Amazon can’t break it.
Since 2016, Shake Shack abandoned its cashless store concept. New Jersey and Philadelphia have banned cashless businesses citywide, citing the model as discriminatory towards unbanked and underbanked people. NYC councilman Richie J. Torres introduced legislation in the city that would make cashless business illegal, and San Francisco just did the same.
And yes, even Amazon has had to backpedal. At inception, cashless payments were at the center of the digital-era convenience store’s model, with customers scanning their phone to enter the store and pay for goods. But as voices against cashless business have gotten louder, Amazon has had to rethink that strategy, particularly after Philly denied its request for an exemption from the city’s ban on cashless.
While the number of underbanked persons in the U.S. continues to fall, there are still about 14.1 million people who classify as such. Those against cashless businesses argue the model excludes these people and could set a dangerous precedent in future.
To its credit, Sweetgreen hinted at this in a blog post, writing, “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.”
Cashless business may very well hold a place in retail’s future at some point, but the U.S. has a lot of hurdles to jump before it gets there, and many of those obstacles are bigger than any one business, and indeed bigger than the food industry itself. For now, then, greenbacks will remain the win-win-win strategy for restaurants.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said all Sweetgreen locations would accept cash by September 30.