At Ben's Chili Bowl, there's no little gray box for swiping cards, no signing of receipts.
That's because, at the family-owned restaurant famous for its chili dogs and "half-smoke" sausages, credit and debit cards are not accepted.
"When we tell [customers] we don't take credit cards, they don't walk out the door -- they turn around and get the cash," said Kamal Ben Ali, whose family owns the restaurant on U Street NW. "So I don't feel any pressure to take them."
Last year for the first time, U.S. consumers used plastic more than cash. But despite that trend, Ben's is not alone.
Some local shop owners say they would rather forgo the possibility of increasing sales than pay the extra fees associated with accepting credit cards, which include renting a terminal and a paying a small percentage of sales to banks and credit card companies.
If Ben's took credit cards, it could pay up to 50 cents in fees for a $10 sale, the size of its average bill. Instead, it makes money each time a customer uses an ATM it installed. Industrial Bank supplies Ben's machine, and the restaurant gets 25 cents every time a customer pays a $2 transaction fee to withdraw cash.
With recently unveiled condos, the Cardozo area has attracted a new breed of U Street dwellers who frequently use their cards at the Starbucks and Quiznos across the street from Ben's.
But Ali said his neighborhood institution -- which is high-tech enough to allow customers to order on its Web site and is known for drawing celebrities and community members alike -- isn't pressured to compete with others in the rapidly changing area.
Unlike some other businesses, Ben's has not been hassled by credit companies hoping to persuade the shop to accept plastic. Instead, it's the paper suppliers that call.
"We get bugged by people that try to sell us paper for our credit card machine," said Nizam Ali, noting that the companies are often "shocked" to find out cards are not accepted.
According to the American Bankers Association, today 52 percent of consumer purchases are made with plastic -- 21 percent with credit cards and 31 percent with debit cards.
Businesses pay as much as 5 percent of each sale to the card-issuing company or bank, by the time costs for authorization, telecommunications and management reports are added up. For debit cards, businesses pay about half the amount associated with a credit card transaction.
Additionally, a shop may have to lease a point-of-sale terminal system -- the box in which a customer swipes the card.
But David Robertson, publisher of the Nilson Report, a consumer payment trend publication, said that by not taking cards businesses are missing out on profits. Only in businesses with tight operating margins -- such as supermarkets -- would 3 or 4 percent of a sale be a significant operating expense, he said.
"There's no doubt that if you take credit cards, you are going to get sales you wouldn't have gotten before," Robertson said. "Since the customer is limited to the cash in their pocket, they don't have enough to buy that extra bottle of wine they might have bought if they'd used their card."
While some small businesses truly do not want to deal with extra fees, and other shop owners may be wary of new technology, according to Robertson, a few are looking for a way to hide revenue and avoid taxes.
"With plastic, you are leaving a record of the transaction," Robertson said.
There are 1.2 billion credit cards in circulation in the United States -- an average of 7.6 cards per cardholder -- on which Americans owe $2 trillion, according to Cardweb.com, an online publication of payment card information. And for year, credit card issuers have targeted businesses that don't accept them.
Most recently they cracked the fast-food industry. McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Jack in the Box all have rolled out plans to accept plastic, a move they say will increase sales.
At McDonald's, the average sale was $7 when customers used plastic as opposed to $4 when cash was used. The company announced its plan to accept cards in March.
At Wendy's, tabs paid with cards are about 35 percent higher than those paid with cash.
Bruce McElhinney, senior vice president of merchant sales at Visa USA Inc., said the average amount of a sale goes up when customers use plastic.
Just look at the supermarket industry, which fought the acceptance of credit cards for years, he said.
"Grocers not only saw higher ticket prices but also that higher-margin items were being purchased," such as deli meat and health and beauty aids, McElhinney said. In 1991, grocers saw $600 million in sales paid with Visa; that number has grown to $62 billion today.
Currently, Visa is working toward broader acceptance in taxicabs, movie theaters and charities and is exploring an option that would allow customers to pay by credit card when they order at drive-through restaurants.
National cafe chain Au Bon Pain found its average order amount went up when it tested plastic acceptance in five New York and Boston shops last year. Jim Fisher, vice president of marketing at the company, said the stores will accept cards by the end of the year. With 197 stores in the United States, it is one of the last national non-fast-food chains to phase-in plastic acceptance.
"People are carrying less cash around," Fisher said.
McElhinney said small businesses that are worried about credit-associated fees may actually be spending more by not accepting cards. The cost of running front-end operations slowed by cash or check-payers and returned-check fees add up, he said.
Ben's takes checks for large parties -- especially those dining in its recently opened additional-seating area, designed for office and private parties. It's during those parties that Ali said he feels a twinge of angst that Ben's doesn't accept cards.
"We're starting to get people that book up to 50 people for a room, and that's the pressure we feel," Kamal Ali said. "Should we take [cards] from them?"
Although ATMs represent one alternative -- Robertson said the number of ATMs steadily increases each year by 15,000 to 20,000 machines, with two out of every three off bank premises -- they can be an irritant to customers.
"Using an ATM is an extra hassle for me, and there are extra fees if it's not my bank's machine," said Anika Ayrapetyants, an international development consultant who works in the District. "I always use a card," Ayrapetyants said. "And if they don't accept it, I'll go someplace else."
At Full Kee restaurant in Chinatown, patrons are greeted with a handwritten sign on the front door that reads, "Cash Only."
Paul Chau, the restaurant's owner, said he owns three restaurants and accepts credit cards at two of them, but not the Chinatown location. The restaurant offers dishes costing as much as $25, but Chau said the average ticket is not high enough to warrant paying plastic-associated fees.
John Essertier, an architect who occasionally lunches at Full Kee, said he is often frustrated by restaurants that do not take plastic because he is so used to paying with his debit card. "You order and get the bill only to find out cards aren't accepted," he said. "Because it's so common, you just expect that they accept them."
Because credit has become so commonplace, merchants who don't take cards run the risk of scaring off customers, Robertson said. "Someone willingly choosing not to take cards is making a questionable business decision," he said.