Last week, New Jersey passed a law that banned stores and restaurants from going cashless, which means that credit card-only or app-only establishments will need to invest in a cash register and get comfortable counting change. Although small business owners have argued that it’s easier, safer, or more efficient for them to be cash-free, state legislators say that the practice is prejudiced, on a number of levels.
“Many people don’t have access to consumer credit, and any effort by retail establishments to ban the use of cash is discriminatory towards those people,” State Assemblyman Paul Moriarty said in a statement. This makes New Jersey the second state in the US to protect its cash transactions; Massachusetts passed a state law that prevents discrimination “against a cash buyer by requiring the use of credit” in 1978.
But a new-ish poke restaurant in Kansas City, Missouri, has sparked backlash with its credit card-only policy—and for the questionable way its owner justified it. Freestyle Poké hasn’t accepted cash since it opened last June, and founder Jeremiah Dupin says that’s for everyone’s benefit. If anyone questions the decision on Facebook, Freestyle Poké responds with a black and white graphic titled “We Are Cashless,” one that explains that being cash-free is greener since armored trucks don’t have to collect money from the store, that it decreases the chance of the restaurant being robbed, and that it allows its staff to serve more customers in less time. “We’ve found that this is a win-win-win-win for ALL,” it says.
Well, not ALL. According to the Washington Post, 7 percent of American households did not have a checking or savings account in 2015, a number that was more than twice as high for black and Latinx individuals. Some people are “unbanked” because they are concerned that they’ll be penalized if they can’t maintain a minimum balance. Others just don’t trust banks, or are too young for a credit card, or are recent immigrants, or have previously been victims of identity theft, or want to keep a closer eye on their finances or, as Assemblyman Moriarty put it, they “don’t want every aspect of their life recorded, stored, and monetized by credit card companies, right down to the purchase of a stick of gum.”
But when a customer asked about Freestyle Poké’s policy on Facebook, Dupin responded by suggesting that the unbanked simply wanted to break the law. “Every single person that claimed they were unbanked, in my experience, claimed that they didn’t have a bank account because they didn’t want to pay taxes or report their income,” he wrote. “We do not support people that are evading bank accounts for tax purposes. We are inclusive of all because anyone can go get a prepaid card and load cash on it and then eat with us, if they want to.”
When KCTV5 asked Dupin to elaborate on his comments, his response was, well, not great. “[The policy] had nothing to do about being discriminatory,” he explained, later adding, “I would ask [the restaurant’s critic], does he use Amazon, does he fly on an airline? Do they use cash? Are they targeting poor people?” (MUNCHIES has reached out to Dupin for further comment, but has not yet heard back.)
Despite the criticism, whether Freestyle Poké continues to be cashless is totally up to Dupin. “There is, however, no Federal statute mandating that a private business, a person or an organization must accept currency or coins as for payment for goods and/or services,” the US Department of the Treasury says. “Private businesses are free to develop their own policies on whether or not to accept cash unless there is a State law which says otherwise.”
Earlier this month, Freestyle Poké announced on Facebook that it would be increasing its prices because “we have LOST money as a business up to this point.” Dupin had a list of reasons, including the high price of sourcing and buying sustainably caught fish, an “inaccurate” pricing structure, the cost of training and compensating its staff, and paying “local yoga & meditation instructors to provide FREE classes to our community” for its lopsided balance sheet.
It’s easy to wonder whether that credit card-only policy could’ve been a factor as well. Eater explains that credit card companies can help themselves to between 2 to 5 percent of what small businesses take in, adding that even if a restaurant makes $1 million in sales, they’re still losing $50,000 in credit card fees.
Regardless of Freestyle Poké’s decision on currency, other people question what the fuck it’s going on with that accent over the e. “That may seem like a minor modification, but as someone born and raised in Hawaii, its implications resonated. Poke is a word—poké and poki are not,” chef Mark Noguchi told First We Feast. “It would be like if I didn’t know how to pronounce your last name and said, screw it, and changed it around. You don’t just change a word to sell it better.”
Not even with credit cards.