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Restaurants face a new pandemic headache: Coin shortages

Some operators are resorting to bribing customers for coins or encouraging employees to bring in spare change from home.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Add this to the mounting pressures restaurant operators face amid the coronavirus crisis: They’re running out of coins to make change.

COVID-19 has caused a disruption in coin circulation nationwide, with about $48 billion in loose change just sitting around U.S. homes, according to the U.S. Coin Task Force, which was established this month to address the issue.

“The weak circulation affects most everyone, but the hardest hit are small cash-dependent businesses and those who are least well off,” Hannah Walker, a task force member and vice president of the Food Marketing Institute, said in a statement.

Chuck Cooper, CEO of 130-unit quick-service chain Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, said his restaurants have started asking customers to use credit cards or pay with exact change. All have posted signs alerting diners to the coin shortage.

The chain’s operators considered offering a 10% discount to those who pay with coins but realized that would create speed-of-service problems, Cooper said.

“Many of our operators’ employees are trying to find coins at home and in cookie jars just to make change,” he said. “It’s just another thing we have to deal with.”

A Taco Bell in Newman, Calif., made headlines this week for offering a free taco to anyone paying with rolls of coins.

“Due to the nationwide coin shortage, we encourage customers to order ahead on the Taco Bell app or website for a completely contactless experience or pay with a credit or debit card,” Taco Bell said in a statement. “Additionally, Round Up benefiting the Taco Bell Foundation is available at participating restaurants and customers paying cash in the drive-thru may use it to donate in support of youth education and as an easy way to ensure the transaction amount ends in a whole dollar.”

Two Chick-fil-A units in Alabama and Virginia have offered a free chicken sandwich, along with a $10 bill, in exchange for $10 in change. The Huntsville, Ala., Chick-fil-A location said on Facebook that it was able to get enough change for several weeks using the promotion.

Cousins Subs is encouraging customers to round up their cash orders in support of local Boys & Girls Club locations. The initiative is taking place at units in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana that have been impacted by coin shortages, according to a statement from the chain. 

Bien Merite French Bakery in Corpus Christi, Texas said the coin shortage forced it to adopt a card-only model.

“While it was challenging and frustrating at the beginning, it eventually made life much easier to cut cash all together and allowed for a contactless interaction with the customers,” owner Michelle Fraedrick said.

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