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For Mary Diedrich, a recent leisurely brunch on the Lower East Side turned into a mad dash to find cash when the bill came with a 3% credit card fee tacked on.
“Notice,” a sign in bold, all-caps red lettering outside the tapas restaurant Poco read: “This business has 3% cash adjustment built into all pricing. Any purchases made with a credit or debit card will receive a non-cash adjustment and will be reflected on your bill.”
Diedrich, 34, fired up her Chase app so that she could find an ATM and withdraw a couple hundred dollars to cover the meal.
“I thought, ‘Why would we spend that extra money?’” she told The Post. “The prices of cabs are more expensive these days, if you can save a couple bucks you’re going to choose to save it.”
Cheap nail salons, bodegas and pizzerias have long offered covert discounts for paying in cash or charged extra for credit cards. But now, trendy, upscale restaurants are also giving incentives for paying with the cold, hard stuff, offering up to 10% off for those willing to carry around hundreds of dollars to pay for ceviche samplers and bottles of Sancerre. With increasingly thin profit margins, general inflation and rising credit card fees — merchants in the US paid $137.83 billion in processing costs in 2021, up 24.3% from the prior year, according to a Nilson report — it’s yet another way for restaurants to try and stay afloat in challenging times.
“It’s all about the bottom line for these businesses, and credit card fees are one of the biggest and most frustrating costs that they face,” said Matt Schulz, chief credit analyst at Lending Tree, a platform that connects borrowers with loan operators. “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll see more restaurants and merchants [doing this].”
“Credit card interchange fees are often the third-highest operating cost for restaurants, behind food and payroll,” added Brennan Duckett, director of technology and innovation policy at the National Restaurant Association. “So menu prices are slowly increasing and, more often, consumers are seeing credit card fees as part of their bills.”
At Mission Ceviche, a Peruvian restaurant on the Upper East Side with a $46 branzino and $165 tomahawk steak on the menu, closing bills note that diners get a 3.50% discount if they pay in cash.
Customers haven’t seem bothered.
“They don’t really care about it too much. We probably get one complaint a week,” said Carlo Silva, a maitre d’ at Mission Ceviche. He said that 95% of people still pay with credit cards despite the signs hung up around the restaurant that note, “if you pay with cash you won’t get charged.”
Saving money on credit card fees could go toward rising food costs, Mission Ceviche general manager and partner Miguel Yarrow said.
“Everything right now is more expensive — seafood, lamb, eggs, milk, all the ingredients that we use,” Yarrow said, adding: “We have a CVS next door — it’s easy access for the customers who want to pay cash.”
The law also doesn’t have any issues with the practice. In 2019, New York merchants were given the right to charge extra for credit card purchases as long as the pricing is made clear, following a long-running court battle. However, it is not allowed for businesses to not accept cash. After a number of eateries, including Union Square Hospitality Group and Sweetgreen, moved toward cashless models, the City Council passed a ban on the practice in January 2020.
At the Lower East Side restaurant Lamia’s Fish Market, diners get a whopping 10% discount to pay in cash.
“I’m trying not to increase our prices,” says owner Lamia Funti. “We’re pretty much staying the same, our profit margin is much lower — it’s that or you have less customers. It’s been tough for everybody.”
Still, Funti said that only about 2% of customers are paying in cash.
Diedrich, meanwhile, never did find an ATM, and ended up paying by card for her brunch, swallowing the 3% fee. She said she’s unlikely to make carrying a wad of bills around a habit in an increasingly dangerous city.
“I’d rather not travel with large amounts of cash, especially if taking public transit,” Diedrich said. “There’s a price to pay for everything these days.”