Retail

Hill Country And The Social Complexity Of Going Cashless

In the Penn Quarter neighborhood of Washington D.C., the Hill Country restaurant specializes in serving up the BBQ’s greatest hits — ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, quartered chicken. It’s popular and well-liked in the neighborhood, but if you want to taste the copious amount of BBQ sauce that is always flowing inside, you better have a credit or debit card on you. Hill Country, as of the middle of this month, stopped taking cash.

“Managing cash and handling cash is time-consuming and cumbersome. We would rather see [our staff] focusing on serving our guests,” Marc Glosserman, founder and CEO of Hill Country said, adding that, as of the day they officially pulled the plug, only 7 percent of its transactions were made in cash.

Cash was actually shaping up to be a security liability for Hill Country, which kept getting robbed. Over the course of the last three months, Hill Country had seen burglars go after its safe not once, but four separate times. Tens of thousands of dollars were stolen before the police arrested a Hill Country employee as a suspect. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Glosserman, who had been considering a cashless leap for the chain for some time. Hill Country might not have done that many transactions in cash, but with the various administrative hassles, and now criminal attention, it was costing the business more than it wanted to pay.

“While cash accounts for a small minority of our transactions, there are often large amounts of cash in the restaurant due to the volume of business at Hill Country. By maintaining this cash on [the] premises for any period of time, we inevitably have a less secure environment than one in which there is no cash around,” Glosserman said in a statement posted on Hill Country’s website.

And so, as of about two weeks ago, Hill Country said sayonara to cash and became a cards only establishment. In so doing, it launched itself into a debate that is unfolding in both its home city of Washington D.C. and nationwide about whether cashless operation is discriminatory.

About 30 percent of the population of Washington D.C. is unbanked or underbanked, and, as a result, tend to rely on cash for most of their transactions. Banning cash in restaurants, city council member-at-large David Grosso says, is tantamount to hanging a sign telling a third of D.C.’s residents — many of whom are minorities — that their business is not welcome.

“When you put out a policy that says that a third of the population is simply unable to participate in your business model, you’re putting your hand up and saying, ‘I don’t want you here,’” Grosso told WAMU.

Grosso has introduced new regulations that would bar restaurants from putting in cash bans – and require them to take hard currency.

“If you have the cash, you should be able to go in and buy a sandwich,” Grosso says.

It doesn’t matter how many local residents have embraced electronic payment methods, so much as it matters how many households haven’t yet — either because they don’t want to, or because they can’t. In D.C., 20 percent of black households are unbanked, and 36 percent are underbanked, according to 2015 data from the FDIC. Both unbanked and underbanked customers tend to be disproportionally low income, according to the data.

Glosserman says it is not his intent or desire to discriminate against anyone — the reality is that Hill Country doesn’t have that many cash customers. And, he noted, the goal is to keep employees safe by taking out the thing that has been making Hill Country a target for criminals for the last quarter of a year.

Moreover, cashless businesses aren’t exactly an unheard of thing — in fact, there are all kinds of things that customers these days just expect to have to use a card to access, and he sees no reason why food can’t join that list.

“There are a lot of businesses, particularly newer economy businesses — Uber, Amazon — none of which accept cash, and no one’s ever claimed that they’re discriminatory,” Glosserman says. “People look at hospitality as a more traditional industry and think this is something that should be classed differently.”

If D.C. changes its laws to require cash when it rules on the issue in about a month, Glosserman says Hill Country will comply. Until then, it is cash free, and hopes to remain that way.

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