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The Cashless Spin: Sweetgreen

I was on my way to meet a friend for an early dinner at “Sweetgreen,” a salad bar/restaurant/shop/assembly line? I am not sure what to call it. Shop, I’ll call it a shop. Suffice to say, it’s a vegetarian’s delight if one is vegetarian (one doesn’t have to be to enjoy Sweetgreen—there are various protein choices). I’d been there once, commented on being coerced into presenting my credit card—no cash accepted—and enjoyed the more than affordable meal. So this was my second visit and I was alert to more details. This time I saw the small sign at the counter explaining the“sustainability” of going cashless: no armored trucks, less chance of theft, more hygienic, etc. (It wasn’t that long, I looked up the “sustainability” reasons later.)

I was skeptical. How many New Yorkers would this decision exclude? A lot. In the USA, 7% of the adult population do not have credit cards. In Sweden, a cashless nation, 35,000 senior citizens who rely on cash, are excluded from the new app-driven economy. The government has a problem. They can’t wait for these seniors to die, they have to sustain them. Government and sustainability. Those words go together, they are sweet to me. So what regulations might be on the horizon? Hard to say.

But, first, a bit of a local flashback: The Amsterdam Avenue Sweetgreen shop I’m discussing here is on the flight path from two local public high schools—Laguardia and Martin Luther King—and a MacDonald’s on 71st and Broadway. It was just past 3 p.m. and the street corner was mobbed with kids—mostly black—socializing and munching on junkie food. Just steps away: an inexpensive healthy meal at Sweetgreen’s. Credit cards only.

So I began to think about this as I entered Sweetgreen. I arrived early to study the menu choices more carefully and to ponder the recent no-cash decision of its owners. Of Sweetgreen’s 64 locations throughout the US, only the shops in Massachusetts allow cash, and only because cashless is illegal there. The 1978 MA law states that no retailer “shall discriminate against a cash buyer by requiring the use of credit.” Federal law leaves the decision to the states.

Is this fair? Is it just? Aren’t we in the throes of a social justice discourse about the chasms between rich and poor in our country right now, at this very moment that I write?

Like most corporations, Sweetgreen has a mission statement, a website, and a PR department. They do philanthropic work in the city’s schools and they have a solid career advancement program for their employees. In other words, they seem to care about the “community,” a word that appears in their mission statement. But what, exactly, do they mean by “community?” Which community? And why not share their affordable, healthy, delicious offerings to everyone?

Here is my recent (May 25th) correspondence with Ben Famous, a PR at Sweetgreen. Please note that he did not want to have what might have been an off-the-record background conversation on the phone, he insisted on email. I wanted some answers so I didn’t push it:

ME: Hi Ben,
Could we have a short conversation on the phone?
I'm at my desk until about 2:30 today.

BEN:Hi Carol
I am tied up in meetings but can be responsive over email. How can I help?

ME: I'm interested in the decision to go cashless. Sweetgreen does terrific work in the schools and it would be logical to offer a cash alternative –like EZ Pass—for kids, for example, who've tasted your offerings and philosophy and would like to go to a store in their neighborhood but don't have a credit card. I saw a bunch of kids in front of the MacDonald's just steps away from your Amsterdam store the other day as I was headed to Sweetgreen to meet a friend, and that's what got me started on this. Just imagine if those kids would walk away from MacDonald's and into Sweetgreen, I thought to myself.

Going cashless is a global trend and some of the reasons make sense and some don't. So I was interested in how a socially conscious company like Sweetgreen is addressing this controversy.

BEN: Thanks for that note. I notice that your write for outlets - are you wanting to write a piece on the policy or are you asking as a customer for your general knowledge?

ME: I'm a free-lancer and an adjunct professor of writing at NYU. I follow my (personal) interests. I have no idea where this will lead. I may talk to other companies that have decided to go cashless. I may keep it small. I may put a posting on my blog. I am finding the subject challenging as even socially conscious companies such as yours are going cashless. There's fallout from this decision, consequences, nationally and internationally. I want to know how Sweetgreen is handling the controversy.

BEN: Sorry it took a bit for me to get back. As you know, Sweetgreen made the decision to go cashless in all of its locations this year, except those in Massachusetts, after a year long process of testing and careful consideration. At this time however we do not have any further comment on that decision beyond what has already been communicated. Please feel free to refer to statements and comments made in both the Fast Company & Business Insider pieces from our announcement which I've linked below. As we look to the future, and continue to evolve, we'd be happy to reach out with any updates or key learnings on cashless.

“Key learnings?” What does that mean? What has happened to the language wherein we speak to one another about important issues of the day? How would I be able to explain to those kids on the corner that they will never be able to enjoy a meal at Sweetgreen unless—or until—they qualify for a credit card.  Read More 
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