At Mel's Hot Dogs recently, a young woman ordered a medium Coke and plopped down a credit card.
"Ma'am, surely you jest,'' said owner Mel Lohn. "I might as well give you the Coke.''
Lohn has had a difficult time adjusting to the modern currency. After all, he has to turn part of the take for that Coke over to the credit card company, the fee for the convenience of taking plastic. He resisted taking cards for 38 years, relenting only when the trend overwhelmed him.
"It's become a dominant force,'' he says. "People started to get angry that we don't take cards — profanity coming at us!''
Still, other area business owners stubbornly refuse, insisting on cash or sometimes check. Your credit and debit cards are useless at the Cappy's Pizzeria in Seminole Heights, at Tampa Lanes bowling, Gene Perez Auto Body repair and the Hub bar in Tampa, and at Ana's Restaurant in Wimauma and the Riverview Sandwich Shop, to name a few.
Lohn says customers would tell him they don't carry cash. "What do you mean, you don't carry cash?'' he would ask, incredulous. His 24-year-old daughter, Anjuli, helped set him straight. "Dad, nobody carries cash anymore,'' Lohn mimics.
So, Mel's started taking credit and debit cards in late February, joining countless other companies that accept plastic for everything from Cokes to colonoscopies.
In years past, Lohn says, card companies quoted him a fee of 45 cents, plus 3 percent of each transaction — so 66 cents of his $7 average sale would go to them. No thanks, he told them. Now, because of competition among card companies, the retailer charge has dropped substantially, Lohn says; he now pays just the 3 percent per transaction.
The owner of Tampa Lanes, in business for more than 50 years, sees no reason to start taking credit cards now. Joe Hanson says he never liked them much.
"I think it slows down service,'' says Hanson, adding that he hates to wait in the grocery line while people ahead of him swipe cards, push buttons and wait for the computer to approve the sale.
But that's not the main reason he won't take them.
"No one has ever proven to me that my business would get better,'' he says. If taking cards doesn't increase business, then why take on the aggravation?
Debbie Leske, manager of the Riverview Sandwich Shop on U.S. 301, says she and her mother, owner Jean Leske, considered taking cards but decided it wouldn't be cost-effective. More people these days try to pay with plastic, and a few get irritated. But there's an ATM on the premises, and Leske says while the machine's owner charges a fee, the shop does not make money on it. Credit card company representatives tell Leske she could increase business by 20 percent if she took plastic. But business is fine at the 28-year-old restaurant, she says.
"We're busy as it is.''
Lohn says it's too soon to tell whether accepting cards has increased business at Mel's, but he's noticed people seem more willing to spend when they're using a card. They might buy an extra hot dog, for example.
Mel's has raised prices, but not just because of the credit card fees. Lohn says he held prices down during the last four years because of the struggling economy, but rising costs — "beef is going crazy'' — forced a 6- to 7-percent hike.
After 34 years, Alfonso's pizzeria at Florida and Bearss avenues started taking plastic about two months ago, and owner Alfonso Orefice says he's seeing an increase in business, though he can't tell how much yet. Some longtime customers come in more often now that they can charge a pizza, he says.
At Gene Perez Auto Body repair, taking credit cards invites trouble, says David Perez, director of operations for the business, which has two locations in Tampa.
"I hate to say it, but a lot of people, they'll stop payment. They do a lot of crazy things,'' he says. Though the credit card companies usually pay after investigating, it interrupts the company cash flow.
The body shop takes personal checks for the insurance deductibles that customers pay and is considering taking debit cards for deductibles.
You definitely need to carry cash if you stop in the Hub for a beer. The downtown Tampa bar opened 62 years ago, before credit cards were commonplace, and still doesn't take them.
"We don't like to change anything,'' says daytime manager Jeannie Robinson, a fixture at the Hub for 24 years.
Philip Morgan can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or [email protected]