Why Van Leeuwen was slapped with more fines for not accepting cash than all other NYC violators combined

The ice cream maker finally agrees to accept cash, but won’t say why it turned away unbanked customers for years
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Andrew Adam Newman

· 6 min read

Ice cream brands are known for taking their licks, but not in the way Van Leeuwen Ice Cream did in New York City last week.

The company, which has 19 stores in the city, had disregarded the Cashless Ban Law—which requires businesses to accept cash—since it went into effect in November 2020.

But on October 11, the city’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection notified Van Leeuwen that it planned to seek an injunction in the New York Supreme Court to force it to accept cash. Just eight days later, on October 19, the company agreed to sign a consent order and pay outstanding fines, of $33,500, and finally accept cash.

After confirming over email that she was Van Leeuwen’s press contact, Cady Roberts, the brand’s marketing director, did not reply to several emails seeking comment.

“In our communities, there are still folks that don’t have access to banks,” City Councilor Marjorie Velázquez, who chairs the Committee on Consumer and Worker Protection, told us. “We have to make sure that we have active consumers out there and we’re not discriminating against anyone.”

  • An estimated 9.4% of New York City households (301,700) are unbanked, New York City’s Department of Consumer and Worker Protection found in 2021.

But what wasn’t revealed in the consent decree, or in the stories in the New York Times, amNY, and elsewhere following the news, was just how defiant Van Leeuwen seemed to be when it came to breaking the law—a law hard to shrug off with its purpose that lower-income residents who wish to pay with cash should not be turned away. Along with receiving more complaints from consumers about Van Leeuwen refusing to accept cash than any other business, the city issued the company more fines for doing so than it issued to all other businesses in the city combined.

The scoop

In August, we published a story about the cashless law in which we (specifically me: Andy) tried to use cash to pay at a Van Leeuwen store and were refused. At the time, we filed a freedom of information request with the city for all violations that had been issued under the cashless ban. The city sent us that data this month, and we were working on a story about our findings when the news of the consent decree broke.

Our data spans violations the city issued from December 11, 2020, the month after the cashless ban went into effect, through August 25, 2022.

In that period, Van Leeuwen was one of 57 businesses that were cited, but its violations and fines exceeded all of the other 56 combined:

  • Van Leeuwen was fined $107,250, compared to $98,725 for all the other 56 businesses combined. (Van Leeuwen’s fines have since grown to $112,000, the city told the New York Times.)
  • It was also charged with violations 91 times, compared to 78 for all the other 56 businesses combined.

Salad chain Just Salad—the business that ranked second for fines, with $32,000—has ~30 locations in New York, according to its website.

Nicole Natoli, a PR and influencer marketing associate with Just Salad, told us in an email that the company “made the decision to go cashless at the beginning of the pandemic in an effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19 for the safety of our guests and employees,” but that it began accepting cash again on August 1 of this year.

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Blank Street Coffee, with ~40 locations in New York, ranked third with $15,000 in fines. It issued us a statement saying it was “not aware” of the cashless ban when it was fined, and all of its locations were accepting cash by mid-July.

Custom van: Joel Bines, a retail industry consultant and managing director at the consulting firm AlixPartners, and author of The Metail Economy, told us in August that when retail executives broach going cashless with him, even where it’s legal, he advises against it.

“Name me another industry where a winning strategy would be making it more difficult for your customers to do business with you,” he said. “For it to have reached the level where politicians feel as though they need to step in and protect consumers from the retail and restaurant businesses is just absurd to me.”

The tipping point

While Van Leeuwen brand representatives often respond to consumer feedback on Yelp and social media about its ice cream, it has usually not engaged with comments about its cashless policy.

It did not respond, for instance, when Priscilla Grim wrote in a review on Facebook in 2020, “They don’t accept cash payments so the ice cream tastes like greed.”

Nor did the brand respond to “David J.,” who in a review on Yelp in 2019 (before the cashless ban was in effect), wrote that he prefers “not to support such a business that doesn’t care about appealing to customers of all socioeconomic levels, including those that may not be fortunate enough to use cards.”

But one review on Yelp this year was different.

“The ice cream is great but they do not take cash and the employee try to tell us you could just put the cost of the ice cream in the tip jar,” wrote “K.K.,” who’d been to its Rockefeller Center location.

“We’re so sorry to hear this,” Van Leeuwen’s customer service representative responded. “We would like to get some additional details so our team can look into this further.”

Why Van Leeuwen did not comply with the law until the city threatened to haul them into court remains a mystery. Along with not responding to our requests for an interview in August, and for this story, the company did not respond to a request from the New York Times about the recent settlement, nor to a story by Eater in 2021 about its widely publicized violations of the law then.

Van Leeuwen, which started with a single ice cream truck in New York in 2008, now has 35 stores in seven states and is sold in supermarkets nationwide, including Walmart, Target, and Whole Foods.

In an interview with Brooklyn Magazine in March, co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen declined to comment about violating the cashless ban, while elsewhere in the interview he seemed to identify with the people the law aims to protect.

Van Leeuwen told the magazine he had a “really healthy fear” about money because he grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut, which is largely affluent, but his own family struggled financially.

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Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.