Rowley Farmhouse Ales no longer have a safe to keep cash in.
The brewhouse restaurant doesn’t need one. This month, it went cashless, meaning patrons have to pay for their goods with debit or credit cards or digital wallets.
Anyway, thieves stole the safe, and all the cash in it, sometime late in the night on Election Day.
That’s why Rowley’s is going cashless, said co-owner Jeffrey Kaplan.
“They ripped out our safe and about two grand. Plus the safe cost about a grand,” he said on a recent afternoon at the restaurant, located in the midtown area.
That was the second of two recent robberies of the place, he said. The thieves netted $2,000 in the first robbery as well.
So the restaurant’s management team got together to consider options to provide safety for their employees, discourage crime and reduce cash loss.
Eliminating the cash factor seemed the best route, he said.
“They know restaurants have money,” Kaplan said of criminals looking for cash. “We said, ‘Let’s make this less of a target.’ ”
Through Rowley’s may be the first Santa Fe restaurant to take this approach — John Bradbury, head of the Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association, said recently he had not heard of any others doing so — at least one restaurant owner in Albuquerque has been cashless for nearly a year.
The six Burritos Alinstante restaurants in Albuquerque and surrounding areas have been cashless for nearly a year now, said Mary Ellen Chavez, who runs the restaurant chain.
The reasons? Too many robberies where people with guns and wrenches and other weapons or tools came into the restaurants threatening employees and demanding cash, Chavez said.
“We had been robbed six or seven times in one of our stores in a very short period of time — six or eight weeks — and my employees were terrified,” she said. “We were trying to figure out how to keep them safe and keep them going [to work]. And our solution helped everyone in that location feel a whole lot better.”
Having tried the cashless approach first at that one site, on Broadway in Albuquerque, the company soon adopted it for all of its restaurants.
The move did not come without an initial cost, she said. By her account, in the first month or two of the new policy, her restaurants lost about 7 percent in revenue.
And more credit card use among customers means more restaurant payouts to those credit card companies — somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent for each transaction, she and Kaplan said.
But Chavez hasn’t regretted the move. Over time, the initial losses from customers who paid only in cash leveled out.
More importantly, he said he has not experienced any burglaries or robberies since implementing the new cashless policy, which means his employees feel safer.
Kaplan said in telling some regular customers of the new cashless plan, a few expressed disappointment and said they would no longer come to the brewhouse restaurant.
“We wonder if some of them are unbanked,” he said, meaning people who pay only with cash because perhaps they don’t have a bank account or credit card.
But, he said, before the new policy only about 10 percent of customers paid with cash. At Chavez’s six restaurants, the percentage of customers paying cash only before the policy was 25 percent, she said.
Those numbers would not surprise anyone who paid attention to a summer Gallup poll that found 6 out of 10 people said they either never used cash anymore or only used it for “a few” services.
That report said 64 percent of Americans believe it is “very likely” or “likely” that the US will be a cashless society during the span of their lives.
A recent Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation report said about 4.5 percent of all United States residents — about 5.9 million — are unbanked. It lists New Mexico as one of several states in which at least 5.6 percent of residents are unbanked.
Reilly White, an associate professor of economics at the University of New Mexico, said about 7 percent of New Mexicans are totally unbanked, so they don’t have ways to pay for things without cash.
“Many people trust cash only,” he said.
He said there are a number of benefits for businesses to go cashless — though the question of whether they will end up excluding people who have no other way to pay remains. Those people are often from low-income or immigrant households, he said. In addition, older people still often prefer to pay with cash, he said.
“They could lose a small part of their customer base,” White said of companies that go cashless. “That is the risk.”
And “Yes,” he said, he could also see America eventually becoming a cashless society.
Like others interviewed for this story, White said having no cash on hand reduces the amount of time spent processing cash transactions, eliminates employee theft and cuts down on the potential for criminal activity.
Kaplan and Chavez said it is possible they will lose some of those customers.
Chavez said in the early days of the new policy, some people came in with only cash and their employees, in an effort to ensure they got served, paid for their food on their own credit cards and took the cash in return.
“They were trying to take care of their regular customers,” he said, adding that temporary practice has been suspended.
Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Chamber of Commerce, said he knows of at least one Albuquerque retailer who has also gone cashless, and he has heard — without confirmation — of some chain retail stores that may be doing the same thing. He echoed others’ sentiments that the main reason to do this is to deter crime, particularly in a city that is one of the worst in the nation for its violent crime rates.
Doing away with cash means doing away with the time it takes to conduct cash transactions, count and balance cash register drawers and deliver cash to banks as well, he said.
That time can better be devoted to customer service now, he said.
He said while he does not see a day when the country as a whole does away with cash as a form of currency, “I think we will see a day when most transactions are probably conducted electronically. You see it with the ease of [digital wallets] Google Pay and Apple Pay. You can swipe your phone [to pay], you don’t even have to have your credit card with you. We are continuing to move in that direction.”
Another potential downside to a no-cash policy, he said, is the threat of cyber theft.
“You don’t get out of the woods completely, but you trade for which risk you are willing to bear,” he said.
Carol Wight, head of the Santa Fe Restaurant Association, said in the long run, it is a threat of crime that will lead more restaurants and bars to follow Rowley’s initiative.
“They are very concerned for their employees and staff, and they don’t want them handling cash and being vulnerable to burglaries,” she said. “We’ve had people held up and shot at gunpoint in restaurants. … You put somebody at risk every time you take money out of the safe and send it to the bank; you put them at risk just by having it on the premises.”
As it is, many of the state’s restaurants are struggling with staffing shortages, so the threat of being victimized can be enough to keep those who are showing up to work from clocking in.
“If you have staff held up at work, they are less likely to come to work the next day,” he said.
Still, efforts to go cashless in other parts of the country are not always paid off. San Francisco legislation passed in 2019 requiring all businesses to take cash, arguing people who don’t have access to banking accounts may otherwise not be able to pay for services.
“This is especially true of the very poor,” the law says.
That same year, New Jersey passed a bill making it illegal for businesses to refuse cash as a payment option.
Wight said there is some legal question as to whether businesses can refuse to accept cash.
“Money is legal tender,” she said.
Kaplan said he checked with state officials, including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office, to ensure there are no legal prohibitions to go cashless. He said he found nothing to indicate it was against the law.
Kaplan said the new policy will not prohibit customers from leaving cash tips for servers — many servers in Santa Fe will say “cash is still king” when it comes to such actions. Chavez said he did away with tipping some time ago and instead pays employees good wages, so that is not an issue at his restaurants.
For Rowley regular Bill Heimann, the prohibition on paying cash means nothing, since he almost always uses a debit or credit card. The way he sees it, more and more people are getting comfortable with using cards to pay for everything.
“We kind of are moving toward a cashless society,” he said.
Mind you, not everyone would agree. Take Nick Klonis, who owns Evangelo’s bar on San Francisco Street. This old-time favorite of both locals and tourists, which was opened over 50 years ago, has maintained a cash-only policy all those years. (As well as a “no tabs — not even for friends” rule that is posted on a sign over the bar.)
As he opened the doors for business late Friday afternoon, Klonis said the biggest benefit of a cash-only business is “a quick transaction. It’s the easiest for me. You order a drink; you pay me; I give you the drink.”
He said on a night when the bar may have 100 customers, the idea of processing 100 credit cards is overwhelming. And, he said, cash-only cuts down on drinking among his patrons.
“When somebody has a tab on a credit card, they start buying drinks for everyone,” he said. “Then when they get the bill, they start challenging me.”
No one challenges him with his cash-only policy. Nor has anyone robbed him, he said.
Anyway, he said, patrons don’t have to go too far to find an ATM machine. Not only is there one right down the street, but “there’s one downstairs at 9 o’clock. And you can play pool there too.”