Why one local business decided to go cashless, then changed its mind – BurlingtonFreePress.com

A Facebook post announced Burlington’s Pingala Cafe planned to stop accepting cash  — meaning customers couldn’t pay in cold-hard greens if they wanted to grab a bite. 

That was until community members called the move exclusionary of people who had no option but to pay in cash, forcing the cafe to reconsider. 

“That was genuinely none of our intention, was to limit any demographic,” Lisa Bergstrom, operations manager at the eatery, said. “At all.”

The eatery offers customers menu items ranging from dumplings and nachos to smoothies and sandwiches. The cafe, housed in a small space equipped with outdoor seating next to the Winooski River, provides vegan food to its customers. 

Why going cashless got Pingala in hot water

Pingala’s announcement prompted people to discuss who might be turned away from the eatery. Specifically, this boiled down to individuals who are lower-income and cannot afford to maintain bank accounts or keep debit cards on hand.

The restaurant intended to go cashless for a number of reasons, including:

  • Saving time (depositing money, for example).
  • Reducing risks to hygiene by handling money.
  • Mitigating the risk of theft by not having cash in the restaurant itself.

Bergstrom said about 80 to 90 percent of Pingala’s customers use non-cash forms of payment like debit and credit card, offering another push for the business to go cashless.

Unexpected response

The intensity of the pushback surprised Pingala, so the business took down the Facebook post to formulate a response. This was also a way to prevent negative comments from causing permanent damage to the business. 

“What’s most important to us is that we are not in any way, shape or form trying to create this exclusive, super hip vibe here at Pingala,” owner Trevor Sullivan said. “It has never been the case with us as far as I can tell. And it is never going to be the case with us.” 

The business saw this as an opportunity to grow itself and spread the availability of vegan food. Pingala wrote on Facebook Tuesday the restaurant would continue to accept cash.

“We landed on continuing to accept cash because we want to always be an all-person inclusive establishment, not provide a disservice to any guests of Pingala, and, we wish to only create a more peaceful presence in the world.”

Who gets excluded in a cashless business?

Almost everyone has a bank, Gillian Franks with the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity said. Franks is a financial coach with the organization’s Financial Futures Program. 

2017 FDIC National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households shows the following breakdown on “unbanked” households — defined as those in which “no one in the household had a checking or savings account.”: 

  • 6.5% of U.S. households were unbanked.
  • In Vermont, the unbanked rate was 1.5%. 

Individuals who are only capable of paying in cash are low-income. There are instances where making a cash purchase is virtually impossible, she said, including:

  • Buying a plane ticket at the airport counter.
  • Renting a U-Haul for a move. 
  • Purchasing diapers on a website, like Amazon for example.

If City Market, a grocery store with a location in downtown Burlington, chose to go cashless, Franks could envision the implications on some customers. But she said a spot like Pingala might not be catering to people who are unable to access payment methods other than cash. 

“I really appreciate that some clients have looked at this and said, ‘This is potentially bad,'” Franks said. “But I think that the clientele are looking at possible issues. Not necessarily real issues.” 

Franks said individuals with low incomes should not be limited to eating cheap foods.

The cheapest orders on the menu are either a loose-leaf tea or coffee at $2.45, while two plates (the Buddha-ful Bowl and Crunch Wrap Supreme) round out the top at $12.95.

Limited bank accounts

The Opportunities Credit Union offers Vermonters an option to open a limited transactional account from which they can make deposits and withdrawals. These accounts are not linked to debit or ATM cards.

About 15 to 20 percent of the credit union’s members use these types of accounts, President Kate Laud said.

Laud provided statistics about Opportunities Credit Union members:

  • Less than half have a debit card tied to their accounts.
  • About 91 percent fall below 80 percent of the average median income level. 
  • Demographically:
    • 71 percent are white.
    • 8 percent are African American.
    • 1 percent are indigenous.
    • 1 percent are Hispanic.
    • 16 percent fall into another category. 
  • Five percent are immigrants or refugees. 

Like Franks, Laud was also unsure about how many people in this position would be willing to pay for food at a spot like Pingala in the first place.

She understood why a business would choose to go cashless, something she said seems to be occurring in society overall. 

“But certainly any business that doesn’t allow cash, is by definition closing off people who don’t have debit cards,” she said. 

Could cashless businesses survive in Vermont?

A Twitter thread discussing the initial move to go cashless drew the attention of one Vermont politician.

Rep. Selene Colburn, P-Burlington, chimed into the conversation, wondering if there was a policy that could address the potential hurdles associated with going cashless.  

“I think there’s two really worthy concerns here,” Colburn said.

Colburn agreed that going cashless could end up excluding some people who have no other way to pay. But she also pointed to the issue of privacy, as information about purchases can be traced through credit cards. 

Colburn applauded Pingala, which she considered a great business, for responding to the community and said she understand why the business considered going cashless. She acknowledged that businesses just might not consider the implications of such a move. 

Colburn said she looked to other states that prevent businesses from going cashless, saying “it’s definitely something I’m thinking about filing a bill on.”

Contact Maleeha Syed at [email protected] or 802-495-6595. Follow her on Twitter @MaleehaSyed89.