LA’s cash-free business revolution gets boost from COVID pandemic

Next time you head out to buy a coffee or sandwich at your local restaurant, don’t be surprised if they only accept digital or plastic payment. 

The number of businesses that have gone cashless in the United States has doubled since the pandemic began, according to a recent survey by Square. The digital payment company says 18% of businesses that use its service have gone cash-free. 

“If you look at the trends overall and where we were headed from a cashless perspective … we got to where we are today three years faster than we would have had it not been for COVID-19,” says Shelle Santana, a professor at Bentley University who’s researched the cashless economy. 

At Dune in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village neighborhood, customers can’t enter the building, must order over an intercom, eat at tables outside on the sidewalk, and make only digital and plastic payments. 

Customers must order through this intercom at Dune. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb. 

Simon Phan, Dune’s operations customer manager, says the switch to no cash was originally based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it works well for his staff. 

“We are a very high volume restaurant,” Phan says. “So if you can just tap your phone, you're done, you're out, and we can attend to the next.”

Customers sit at tables on the sidewalk at Dune. Photo by Benjamin Gottlieb. 

Turns out, lots of customers don’t mind the switch, especially younger, tech savvy people who don’t usually carry cash anyway.

“It's not a problem to me. If it's something that benefits them, then I'm happy to do it,” says Jason Stomber, as he waits for his order outside Dune.

Meanwhile, an older generation is not used to throwing down the credit card on a small transaction, like a coffee or a falafel. 

“It's our currency and everything being digital and electronic. And being out there constantly using it, I do feel a little bit vulnerable,” says Fern Laurel. 

For others, digital transactions are fine during the pandemic, but afterwards, they’re concerned about equity and access to smartphones and credit cards.

“It’s an elitist move. It's totally classist,” Kevin Hockin. “And I think at some point, you have to accept cash. But I think while we're coming out of a pandemic, or still very much in a pandemic, I think it is a great solution and acceptable.”

Meanwhile, cites across the country, from San Francisco to Philadelphia, have passed laws preventing businesses from banning cash, saying such rules are discriminatory. Last year, the New York City Council did the same, though many of the regulations were relaxed during the height of the pandemic. 

As for Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti has taken a different approach: Instead of banning the practice, support business owners from low-income and disadvantaged communities in their transition to a digital-first model. It’s through LA Optimized, a citywide initiative that helps business owners build their web presence and accept payments online. 

“I think the forces predate the pandemic to be contactless and electronic. And we've got to make sure that everybody has access to that,” he says.