Credit Card-Only Businesses Under Fire From City Hall

While cash-only businesses are everywhere in S.F., it's their counterparts who are under scrutiny for potentially leaving out youth, those with bad credit, and people who are paid under the table.

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Walk into nearly any to-go dim sum joint on Irving Street or dive bar in the Mission and chances are there will be a big “CASH ONLY” sign posted behind the bar. That has its own inconveniences; ATM fees are highway robbery, and leaving your spot in line to scrounge up a $20 is annoying. But across the city, a new wave of businesses are flipping that concept on its head and refusing to accept cash at all.

This might sound like a good thing; no more trips to the ATM! But this policy, one politician argues, can negatively affect a number of San Francisco residents — and she’s introducing legislation to ban it. 

“The ‘unbanked’ are all around us,” said Supervisor Vallie Brown during Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting. “They are young people who don’t qualify for credit cards and seniors and low-come folks who are on fixed-incomes or prefer to use cash. They are the poor, immigrants, African Americans, LatinX, Asian Pacific Islanders, and folks with concerns about privacy.”

To be fair, there are not too many businesses who currently fall into this category. Bluestone LaneSweetgreen, Eatsa, and The Organic Coup are a few, and they are all located in fairly affluent areas, along the Embarcadero, in the Financial District, and the tech-heavy SoMa. 

But the trend could easily expand, leaving those with bad credit or who are paid in cash behind. For example, if someone who’s begged for change all day walks in trying to purchase a coffee with their legal tender, they could be turned away. Or, a teenager who wants to buy lunch downtown but who doesn’t yet have a credit card would be locked out of eating at certain restaurants. 

Brown’s legislation makes it clear that this legislation targets brick-and-mortar businesses who operate out of a physical, fixed building — so it wouldn’t apply to mobile food trucks, pop-ups, or any online business. And, businesses can still turn down large denominations, like bills over $20.

But what’s at issue is less about convenience than economic equity. 

“The future may be cashless but denying the ability to use cash as a payment today means excluding too many people,” Brown says. “Basic industries providing goods and services have an obligation to be inclusive and accessible to everyone.”

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