Crime, economics, peace of mind – small business owners offered different reasons Feb. 9 at a meeting with city officials on why they went cashless.

Evanston economic development officials held the meeting over Zoom, inviting feedback from business owners on an ordinance that would require Evanston businesses to accept cash payments from customers.

Julie Matthei, Hewn Bread co-owner, discusses the cashless option at the City Council meeting. Credit: City of Evanston YouTube

About half the group of 17 people were owners of small businesses, with a number of them sharing detailed reasons behind their decision to go cashless.

City Council Member Devon Reid (8th Ward) proposed the ordinance, which would amend the city code to prohibit businesses from banning cash payments.

Reid has said he is making the proposal on behalf of the “unbanked,” referring to those without bank accounts, debit or credit cards, so they could have the same access to goods and services at food and retail establishments as those with bank accounts, debit and credit cards.

He estimated that based on a national survey as many as 5,000 Evanstonians might fall in that category.

“We think about undocumented folks, we think about seniors, folks of color who are disproportionately unbanked in the U.S. and in our community,” Reid said. “So the inspiration is to ensure that those folks have access to necessary services and beyond.” 

Under the proposal, a business that refuses to accept cash on charges above $20 could face a fine of up to $1,000 for a first violation and up to $1,500 for each subsequent violation. The ordinance would also allow consumers to report violations by calling the city’s 311 phone line.

Businesses owners explain their reasons

Mark Quiamzon, one of the owners of Cinnaholic, 1596 Sherman Ave., said crime was the reason the restaurant went cashless. “Our cash box [was] stolen right in front us by a group of people that walked into the store and grabbed the cash,” he said.

“Even if it means less revenue for us, I have to look out for the safety of my staff.”

Quiamzon said even if the city adopts the proposal, officials should increase police patrols in the area. He added that when he went to the police department to report the theft, “they basically said, ‘No, there’s nothing that can be done.’”

Julie Matthei, co-owner and director of business operations at Hewn Bakery, 1733 Central St., said the store accepted cash until the Covid pandemic, then moved to online orders.

Hewn Bakery, located on Central Street. Photo provided.

“We [have] kept that cashless policy for several reasons,” she explained. “One, it made our transactions more efficient with less face-to-face interactions for long periods of time with customers. We didn’t have to touch the money. We didn’t have to go to the bank every day. And at that point, the country was experiencing a coin shortage so we could not reliably obtain coins from the bank.”

She told city officials that the same issues continue though to a lesser degree now. And crime is also a concern. “We do not have any cash nor a safe on site, so we are less likely to be a target for theft. And there’s no tip jar.”

Further, she said, “It also eliminated the problem with counterfeit bills,” which were passed three times when the bakery was located on Dempster Street.

Matthei said, “We are very empathetic with people experiencing financial difficulties, homelessness. We donate our leftover food every day to local food pantries. And we give to many local nonprofits throughout the year, and I really hope that our track record for helping others and understanding that speaks for itself.”

The city might want to consider requiring businesses such as large groceries and pharmacies to use cash, she suggested, “but not small businesses, because it should be the choice of that business as to what method of payments they accept.”

Going cashless relieved a lot of stress

Gabrielle Walker-Aguilar, owner of 4 Suns Fresh Juice, at 1906 Main St., which sustained major damages in a fire on Feb. 3, said her business does not accept cash unless “we make an exception.”

Gabrielle Walker-Aguilar of 4 Suns Juice In a 2021 photo. (Photo by Kristin Brown)

“I don’t refuse anyone a healthy juice or smoothie,” she said, saying the customer may come back at another time, “or I’ll give it to them. It’s infrequent that it happens.”

She continued, “I personally would like my small business to make exceptions and let this be on me. But my question is, ‘Has there been a voice on that end of unbanked people saying, “Evanston has a problem and I can’t get food?”’ And if this is an issue, then, yeah, we need to rally around, make sure those people can eat. But where has that issue been voiced?

“Personally, when I opened up my shop two years ago, there was a rash of robberies”  in the area, she noted. Now, “we don’t have cash. You can’t rob us. I like the peace of mind that I can press a button and have my funds deposited into a bank and no one has to count down [the bills in a cash register], make a mistake.

“We’re already nurturing these young people to work in a business. I like the idea that they don’t have to handle [cash] and, especially if I’m not in the establishment, I can close my business remotely. All they have to do is lock the door and clean up – and that relieves a lot of stress and pressure …”

Responding to the comments about crime, Reid said he has not seen any evidence that cash requirements were a problem. “This just hasn’t panned out that these ordinances cause some massive increase in crime,” he said.

Further, he asked the owners about their costs in credit card and debit fees over the course of a year.

“Because there’s a huge cost associated with just not accepting cash, which is what, 3% per transaction or maybe more. … I’d love for us to maybe get some estimates on what the cost is annually for businesses like yours.”

To Walker-Aguilar’s question about where the issue came from, Reid responded there “are folks who are struggling that I’ve had conversations with. Is there a huge chorus of folks saying, ‘Hey, we really [need it]? No.

“These are folks who are not proximate to power,” he pointed out, “and traditionally don’t get involved and advocate for themselves,” he said.

He said a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation survey indicated that roughly 4.5% of U.S. households are unbanked. Applying that figure to Evanston, he estimated that would amount to 5,000 people. “And to me, that’s not insignificant,” he said.

Council members pulled back from adopting the ordinance banning cashless establishments at their Jan. 23 meeting after Council Member Tom Suffredin (6th Ward) raised concerns about approving the proposal without sufficient information.

Tom Suffredin

“I’m just trying to figure out how many businesses we’re affecting, how many people we’re helping, if there’s another way to do it,” Suffredin said.

“I just I think without any of that information, it’s irresponsible to pass this. It may be a good policy objective, but we don’t know who we’re hurting, who we’re helping and if there’s a better way to do it than it’s proposed.”

Officials expect to bring the issue to the city’s Feb. 22 Economic Development Committee meeting, as well as the city’s Equity Empowerment Commission, which is next scheduled to meet Feb. 16, before returning to council members, probably for their second meeting in March.

In the meantime, officials are  encouraging businesses to provide further feedback to a survey about the ordinance. 

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. Going cashless is another form of wage theft and further bolsters the risks of credit fraud.

    It is a very bad idea.

  2. I understand the issues facing small businesses and the people who do not have bank accounts for various reasons (i.e. no social security number, debt collectors, just overall lack of trust in the banking system etc.)

    I am general counsel of a light industrial staffing company, and we have plenty of employees who do not have a bank account. One of the easiest solutions is the no fee global cash card. Obviously, this is a consumer issue and not an employer issue. But if Evanston has done it’s research (doubtful) and determined that xyz percent of Evanson residents do not have bank accounts and these same people wish to shop in and/or or dine in our local businesses, then here is an idea:

    Place global cash card kiosks in the libraries or other municipally run places or where people can convert their cash into a global cash card that works just like a no fee debit card.

    Many moons ago in the mid-1990’s I was a small business owner (CondomSense Inc. in Long Island NY – go ahead and laugh but I was 24 and did it on my own). I had an issue with cash back then because of theft. And that was the 1990’s. So, we have come a long way since then and no longer use pagers, or old school fax machines. Here is an example.

    Please Evanston, support the businesses and provide a solution for the people who do not have a debit card already. It’s not a tough issue to solve. You do not need to hire a consultant or divide our City. Just provide an easy win-win solution without the drama for once.

    Thank you.

  3. Portello’s drive up windows are credit only because of robberies,
    Other food chains are going to follow
    The city of Evanston should be helping businesses, not hindering them.

  4. It seems that having a bank account and associate services such as a debit card would benefit the unbanked. Instead of layering on more requirements on businesses, perhaps the city should concentrate on helping those without access, gain access.

  5. Please let’s support small businesses
    ‘In Evanston. It’s vital for them and for the community. There can be another solution for the unbanked people like debit cards?