Phoenix's Cash-Only Bar Culture Lives on in the COVID Era

These cash-only bars in metro Phoenix won't be switching to contactless payments anytime soon.
These cash-only bars in metro Phoenix won't be switching to contactless payments anytime soon. Lauren Cusimano
Leah McAuliffe has been serving drinks for 12 years. She’s currently bartending at Roman’s Oasis in Goodyear, where she likes to slide empty bottles down the bar into the open trashcan.

“Roman’s has been cash-only for 34 years," McAuliffe says, "They’re not going to budge on that."

Lately, due to COVID, many restaurants and bars have been touting their new contactless mobile payment systems. Other food businesses are emphasizing that cards are preferred over cash. Overall, there's been a significant rise in contactless payment.

But some Phoenix-area bars, like the honky-tonkin’ Roman’s Oasis and its sister bar Roman’s County Line in west Phoenix, still prefer bills. McAuliffe says COVID has not had an effect so far on its cash-only traditions. Most customers know the deal, and if they don’t, there are two ATMs.

“The only annoying thing is the ATM charges $3.50, so people ask for a free beer worth $3.50,” she says. (Her response: “Sorry honey, no.”)

Some customers ask why they can’t pay with a card. “It’s one of Roman’s rules from way back,” McAuliffe says, referring to the original owner, Roman Comer, who opened the bar in 1986.

click to enlarge Roman's Oasis is like a blast from the past, and paying with cash is part of that. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Roman's Oasis is like a blast from the past, and paying with cash is part of that.
Lauren Cusimano
Comer’s daughter, Myra Curtis, has owned the place (along with Roman’s County Line) since 2015. She says the cash-only thing "helps keep things historic" along this stretch in Goodyear, where a Target-anchored shopping plaza now sits across the intersection at Yuma Road and Cotton Lane.

“It’s like the Old West when you had to pull out your little money sack with your gold in it,” she says. "People come in and they say it’s like a blast from the past. And that’s what we want it to be.”

Also: “We don’t have great internet here,” Curtis says, meaning credit card machines wouldn't run smoothly at Roman's Oasis. And even if the bar did have good connectivity, like at Roman’s County Line just 12 miles east, credit card companies charge fees.

“We keep our prices low,” she says. (That tracks; my bottled beer was $3.75.) “We don’t have to charge that higher price to accommodate for the fees. And if we ever did go to credit cards, we would have to.”

Another bonus, as McAuliffe noted: Bartenders aren't put in the awkward position of telling someone their card's been declined.

And so Roman's remain cash only, which Curtis enjoys. She notes that in addition to following CDC and Maricopa County safety guidelines, the staff is being extra cautious, always sanitizing after handling cash before starting "another project," as she puts it.

“It’s a different culture,” Curtis says, “and it’s just been such a part of our history for so long, I’d hate to see it go away.”

click to enlarge The majority of Jupe's clientele are regulars — people who are already used to paying with cash. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
The majority of Jupe's clientele are regulars — people who are already used to paying with cash.
Lauren Cusimano
Across town in west Mesa, Jupe’s is a one-room bar in the Carriage Lane Plaza at Loop 101 and Guadalupe Road. It too is cash only. In fact, they still take personal checks.

A Minnesota Vikings-themed joint, Jupe's has been in this location since 1982. Rena Christensen has tended bar here for the last 10 years. She doesn’t see the cash-only policy deterring regular customers from coming in and handing over cash in the COVID era. She says most of the clientele are regulars who are already used to paying with bills.

click to enlarge In fact, Jupe's still takes checks. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
In fact, Jupe's still takes checks.
Lauren Cusimano
Exhibit A: David Lauscher, a.k.a. Sweet Dave, sitting at the bar with a pitcher of beer and a Rammstein mask. He’s been coming here since 2007 or 2008. He says he hates paying ATM fees, so he makes a habit of getting cash back wherever he stops before coming to Jupe’s.

Christensen laughs at this routine. “See? Somebody will tell you,” she says. “’Stop at the bank, because Jupe’s is cash only.’”

She says the owner is as set in his ways as the customers are. The choice to stay cash-only comes from Steve English — son of Jupe.

“This is the way he’s always done it and it’s worked,” she says. “He is not extremely open to new technology, so he is not excited about credit card machines.”

And she doesn’t see the pandemic motivating English to start shopping for one anytime soon.

“I don’t necessarily think that it’ll affect us here at Jupe’s,” she says. “Though things have been slower. But I’m guessing everywhere is slower.”

click to enlarge Time Out Lounge has gone cash-only for now because of COVID. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Time Out Lounge has gone cash-only for now because of COVID.
Lauren Cusimano
Also established in 1982, Time Out Lounge in central Tempe requires a $10 minimum to run a credit card. Depending on sales, Time Out was until recently sending roughly $300 to $400 to credit card companies in charge fees each month.

Owner Laura Kelly-Phillips says there are also fixed monthly fees in addition to the percentage taken per card swipe, which varies per credit card company. “Even on one beer; I might as well give it to you,” she says, referring to charge fees plus the additional costs of running a bar, like wages, utilities, rent, liquor license renewals. and other sundry expenses.

click to enlarge Time Out Lounge owner Laura Kelly-Phillips. - LAUREN CUSIMANO
Time Out Lounge owner Laura Kelly-Phillips.
Lauren Cusimano
That's why, amid declining sales thanks to COVID, Time Out has gone cash-only for now.

Josh Garcilaso, a bartender here for more than six years, stands in front of the new cash-only sign taped to the bottom of the TV. (There’s a twin sign at the other end of the bar).

“Our sales went from eh,” he says, holding his hand out shakily, “to boom” — now his hand takes a nosedive — “as soon as the virus hit. And our credit card machine company charges a shit load of money just for running a credit card.”

Before, customers were running up $30, $40, $50 tabs. When COVID hit, bars were shut down on March 17, then again on June 29. Time Out switched to takeout between openings. Suddenly, a typical sale was one or two beers, to go.

“It was just so not worth it for us to ring in $70 a day and have $15 of that go straight to the credit card company,” Garcilaso says, “It was screwing us over. We couldn’t afford it.”

Garcilaso says he doesn’t mind handling cash. It’s not the kind of thing that bothers him with the bar’s precautions in place. “Personally, I go through a lot of hand sanitizer, every time I touch money."

Besides, he says, debit cards can be dirty, too.
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Lauren Cusimano is Phoenix New Times' food and drink editor. She is a journalist and food waste writer based in Tempe. Joys include eating wings, riding bikes, knowing everyone at the bar, talking too much about The Simpsons, and falling asleep while reading.
Contact: Lauren Cusimano