AD Main Menu

Chipotle: Is restaurant chain cheating customers on pennies?

Schuyler VelascoThe Christian Science Monitor

Is there a more maligned piece of currency than the puny penny? Rejected by vending machines, left in that little tray at the gas station, phased out by Canada, the little copper pieces get no respect and very little notice.

Until they’re taken away, that is. Chipotle, the Mexican food restaurant chain, found that out the hard way this week. Karin Price Mueller from the New Jersey Star-Ledger reported Monday that customers at several locations were noticing Chipotle cheating on their bills – namely, that check totals were being rounded to the nearest nickel with no explanation (so a bill that should add up to $8.99, for instance, would be rounded up to an even $9.00).

The rounding goes both ways, often working in favor of the customer (so a hypothetical bill of $12.41 would get a surprise discount, down to $12.40). According to Chipotle, the practice is a matter of efficiency.

"It’s something we do in some high volume markets, including New Jersey," Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold told the Star-Ledger. "The way it works is that prices auto-round to the nearest quarter and that’s indicated on the receipt. The idea is simply to limit the possible combinations of change on cash transactions to keep the lines moving quickly.”

He also told the New York Times that Chipotle hadn’t seen a profit from the practice, and that for mist customers it was “generally a nonissue.”

Earlier this month, Chipotle started including a “rounding” line on its receipts, in response to customer complaints about discrepancies. Still, rounding pennies invokes visions of elaborate penny-pilfering schemes hatched in movies like “Office Space” and “Super Man 3” – not a good look, from a public-relations perspective.

Plus, as many have pointed out, Chipotle uses cash registers that automatically count out correct change for the cashiers, making the “time saving” explanation smell a little fishy.

And Chipotle knows it. The chain now only rounds down, to the nearest nickel.

The real loser in all of this, though, may be the penny, despite its brief moment in Chipotle’s scandalous glow. Rounding down to the nearest nickel means that the company no longer has to bother with pennies – and does not care. If other restaurants begin rounding, will that spell the penny’s end?

If so, it may take a while. Despite the fact that it costs 2.4 cents to manufacture a penny, a vast majority of Americans are attached to the little coin. Some 67 percent of adults are in favor of keeping the penny in circulation, according to a March 2012 poll by Opinion Research Corporation International. And the penny has already survived two congressional bills that proposed ending its production. A snub from Chipotle isn’t quite so intimidating.