Web Exclusive | November 2017 | By Trevor Lenzmeier

Chicago's Cash-Free Pizza Joint Comes to Life

Bonci Chicago is all cards, all the time. And customers are loving it.
Bonci Pizza is taking over Chicago.
Bonci Chicago is entirely cash–free, which has helped streamline operations. Bonci Pizza
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In a compact space in Chicago’s growing West Loop neighborhood, Rick Tasman runs the show at Bonci Pizza. During the lunch rush in the Windy City, the BonciUSA president doesn’t look like a typical executive, though—which is fair, considering that Bonci doesn’t serve typical Chicago pizza.

An apron on his chest, Tasman manages the Roman–style pizzeria, open since August, from the front of the house. He hands out tickets to entering customers, designed to mimic a European deli–style restaurant, and directs the hungry families, students, and professionals to the glass counter.

In the window display at Bonci, there are 20 different styles of pizza, topped with a colorful mix of spinach, sausage, meatballs, mozzarella, and more. Tasman explains that the pies are served al taglio, by the slice, meaning customers can choose several pizzas in various quantities, priced according to their weight.

To an extent, the customer experience at Bonci requires schooling. That’s to be expected, though, since the only other place to get pizza like Tasman’s is from Gabriele Bonci himself.

“We take no liberties with the recipe,” Tasman says. “What you’d get in Rome you’ll get here, exactly the same.”

While Tasman made some slight changes for the first American store—there are only about 40 seats at Bonci Chicago, but there are none at the flagship store in Rome—he intended to bring an authentic Roman experience to the U.S.

And while Tasman says his customers have fallen for traditional Italian favorites like margherita and potato mozzarella pies, another aspect of his business initially seemed foreign to some.

Bonci Chicago is entirely cash–free.

“I knew I wanted to try it,” he says. “A few people told me they weren’t sure it would work, then they asked their kids and they said, ‘I never use cash.’”

Tasman always thought that if he opened a restaurant, he’d nix bills entirely, because of problems he thinks cash creates. Those issues range from imbalances in the register to counterfeit notes, the need for a safe, and the danger of transporting large amounts of cash.

On the other hand, credit card purchases allow for quicker transactions for both customers and staff, who don’t have to be trained in handling the cash register. With a cash-free point of sale system, a pizza chef could ring up a customer just as easily as Tasman.

Tasman says he’s noticed a streamlined process immediately, and that Bonci’s tech–heavy West Loop neighborhood made the digital jump easier. With Google and Tesla just down the street and a handful of other cash–free joints in the neighborhood, Tasman says Bonci has had few objectors to the policy. When a customer is insistent on using cash, though, Tasman says he’ll always make accommodations.

“There’s no change here, I have no money in this building,” he says. “So if you came in and your bill is $18.79, and you have $18.79 on you, I’ll take your cash, I’ll put it in my pocket, and I’ll ring you up with my credit card. But I don’t have the $2 to give you.”

The BonciUSA president puts his money where his mouth is, too. He might suggest that customers buy a gift card—even if it’s charged to Tasman’s credit card—and pay for the meal that way. Most of the time, though, he says his staff asks customers to pay with a card and they pull one right out.

“We’re accommodating it, but we’re not ashamed that we don’t take cash. It’s just how we do business,” he says. “And I wouldn’t change this decision for anything.”

Tasman’s decision might be indicative of a growing trend in the fast–casual sector. In October, Shake Shack opened an entirely cash–free location in Astor Place, New York City, operated by human personnel and kiosks. Salad chain Sweetgreen doubled down on digital dining last year when they announced that cash would be a thing of the past at their restaurants nationwide.

As for Bonci, Tasman says he plans to stay cash–free at any new location. Regarding expansion, he says the focus is Chicago for now, with the intent to enter other major American cities down the road.

Cash–free dining aside, he says the city is a perfect place to test the Bonci brand outside of Italy.

“One of the reasons we came to Chicago is they’re well known for their own style of pizza, and people will give us their honest opinions. I thought it would be a good barometer for how successful this concept could be in the U.S.,” he says.

“When you’re in Rome and having this pizza at Bonci, people love it. But they’re still in Rome, on vacation in an incredible city. I wanted to see how it would work here, in a pizza town, and people have really taken to it. You can have your pub style or deep dish or whatever style you like, but this is really something different.”

After three busy months, it’s clear Chicagoans have chosen to have their deep dish pies and eat, Bonci, too. And while Tasman and Bonci are ahead of the trend with their implementation of Roman pizza in the U.S., that might not be the trail they’re remembered for blazing. As services like ApplePay grow daily, and more restaurants test the waters of cash–free dining, Bonci Pizza is conducting business as usual.