The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sweetgreen says it’s going ‘back to the future’ — by accepting cash

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 18: Custom salad being made at Sweetgreen in Washington, DC on September 18, 2017. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Two years after going “cashless,” salad chain Sweetgreen will begin accepting cold, hard cash at its stores again.

The policy reversal comes amid criticism that cashless stores discriminate against people who don’t have -- or want -- credit cards, debit cards or bank accounts. New Jersey and Philadelphia passed laws last month that would require businesses to accept cash. A number of other jurisdictions, including the District, are considering similar legislation.

Sweetgreen, founded in Washington in 2007, said it will accept cash at all 94 of its stores by the end of the year. The fast-casual chain specializes in salads and bowls that start at about $10.

"Going cashless had positive results, but it also had the unintended consequence of excluding those who prefer to pay or can only pay with cash,” the company said in a blog post this week. “Everyone in the community needs to have access to real food.”

As restaurants go cashless, a backlash is building. Will D.C. intervene?

Sweetgreen said that when it first decided to go cashless in 2016, it thought the move would reduce the number of robberies in restaurants and cut down on the use of armored cars and paper. It was also supposed to speed up service for customers standing in line. In other words, a “win, win, win” for customers, communities and the company alike.

“Welcome to the future -- it’s cashless,” the company wrote that December.

The move was meant to make business more efficient. Sweetgreen said forgoing cash helped cashiers process as many as 15 percent more sales per hour, shaving “several minutes” off of each transaction. And, it said, fewer customers were using cash anyway, opting instead to pay by card or mobile app.

“When we started Sweetgreen in 2007, 40 percent of our transactions were cash,” the company said. By 2016, that figure had fallen to less than 10 percent of transactions.

But this week, the company switched its tune: “Back to the Future -- it’s cash,” it said in a blog post. Sweetgreen ultimately decided that keeping stores cashless clashed with its mission of “connecting people to real food.”

A growing number of retailers, including Amazon, are rethinking their policies. The Seattle-based tech giant recently confirmed that it plans to soon accept cash at its Amazon Go convenience stores. The cashier-less stores currently require shoppers to pay using an app on their smartphones. (Jeffrey P. Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon, also owns The Washington Post.)

From salad shop to music festival, Sweetgreen branches out

Advocates for low-income and immigrant communities say the rise of cashless establishments -- which, in the District, include Surfside and Barcelona Wine Bar -- discriminates against a large swath of the population. It also shuts out people with poor credit, or middle- and high schoolers who may not qualify for credit cards.

“We should be building an inclusive economy, not shutting people out,” said Ed Lazare, executive director of the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute, which advocates on behalf of low- and moderate-income residents. “These are policies that can have incredibly hostile implications.”

In the District, nearly 11 percent of residents do not have a bank account, according to a 2015 survey by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Many of the “unbanked," data show, are lower-income residents who tend to be black or Latino.

Earlier this year, District lawmakers introduced legislation that would require businesses to accept cash. There is no reason, they said, that someone without a credit card should not be able to buy “a salad at Sweetgreen, frozen yogurt at Menchie’s, or a sandwich at Jetties.”

“By denying patrons the ability to use cash as a form of payment, businesses are effectively telling lower-income and young patrons that they are not welcome,” D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) said at the time.

Staff writer Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.

Read more:

Lululemon sold women on $100 leggings. Now it’s coming after men, with $38 boxers.

Mom jeans made women love denim again

Sears is suing Steven Mnuchin and other former board members