Fast & Curious: Short Takes On Random Things

Lord have Percy

I don’t even know where to start with this baffling story.

Freshii, the Canadian-based fast-food chain, is experimenting with a “virtual cashier” system called “Percy” that allows it to hire cashiers in Nicaragua and pay them US$3.75/hour instead of minimum wage in Ontario which is $15 (US$11.70) per hour.

I could try and explain how it works but it’s easier just to show you:


According to the platform’s website, Percy is named for “the reliable and eager-to-please tank engine from ‘Thomas and Friends,'” and is not:

…about replacing people or jobs. It isn’t about lower pay or working conditions. It’s about a labor shortage across the restaurant industry.

Got that? It isn’t about replacing people or jobs. Except that, two paragraphs later, it is:

Automation is on the march in every industry. Retail platforms like Amazon have taken humans out of the sales process. UberEats and other food delivery services make location irrelevant and reduce customer interactions to pressing options on a phone and supermarket self-checkout scanners have been around for more than 20 years.

“So suck it up” being the implied (although not actually expressed) conclusion.

Freshii apparently started experimenting quietly with the system in Ontario in November and the press only caught up with it late last month when the Toronto Star published a story about it. When Global News followed up, it received a statement from  — you can’t make this stuff up — “Percy” — who said the technology will help the restaurant industry solve its staff shortage problem by creating “a human solution for the ordering/cashier process.”

Unlike a kiosk or a pre-ordering app, which removes human jobs entirely, Percy allows for the face-to-face customer experience, that restaurant owners and operators want to provide their guests, by mobilizing a global and eager workforce.

Virtual Freshii cashier

“Percy” the virtual cashier system (Percy/Vimeo)

I have so many thoughts.

First, I know, this is just the fast-food industry doing what so many other industries have been doing for decades — outsourcing and offshoring customer service. I live in a province that has made a concerted (although not particularly successful) effort to capitalize on this trend. Companies do this for the same reason they do everything: to save money and increase profits. (Or are you going to try and tell me all the offshoring and outsourcing we’ve seen over the years has been driven by labor shortages?)

And before anyone accuses me of wanting to deny Nicaraguans the right to boring customer service jobs, let me just say that offshoring and outsourcing are never about “helping” people in less developed countries (or less economically vibrant regions of more developed countries), they’re about saving money and increasing profits for companies.

So this is just a new flavor of an old problem, although I have to admit, the suggestion that you can have a “face-to-face customer experience” with a computer monitor adds a fresh new twist.

I honestly can’t understand why customers would prefer to talk to a person on a computer screen than use an automatic kiosk — and I suppose it’s possible they won’t and that “Percy” will go to the great tech repository in the sky — but I have to suspect someone has analyzed the situation and decided a person on a video screen will be more palatable than the type of automated kiosk McDonald’s started installing in 2015. (The type of kiosk that, according to Bloomberg, can’t take cash and so is of no real use to people without bank accounts and credit/debit cards. Although I’m guessing Percy can’t take cash either, unless they install a massive pneumatic tube system — like the one they used to have at Crowell’s on Charlotte Street — connecting Toronto and Managua).


Cash or charge it?

I need to add a quick sidebar on this subject. That Bloomberg article was written in 2019, just before you-know-what arrived, and it notes:

Cashless restaurants, including Dos Toros Taqueria, have faced criticism that they discriminate against low-income consumers who may not have bank accounts. Inc.’s Go grocery markets and the Sweetgreen salad chain reversed their no-cash policies earlier this year.

Cities and states are starting to ban cashless stores. Philadelphia and San Francisco have such rules in place now and other municipalities are weighing similar measures.

By 2020, many stores were refusing to accept cash due to COVID concerns, prompting USA Today to fact check a rumor that there was a “federal law” requiring businesses to accept “legal tender.” The paper determined that while no such federal statute existed, there were cities — Philadelphia and San Francisco, as noted above, with New York about to join them — as well as a number of states including Massachusetts, New Jersey and Rhode Island — with such laws in place:

Lauren Cox, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, told USA TODAY of the city’s law banning cashless businesses that, “In a city with a 26% poverty rate, it is critical we do what we can to support equal opportunity for all residents.”

Meanwhile, in Canada, this CBC story from 2017 (headlined “Going cashless in Toronto’s trendy eateries“) says:

More Toronto businesses are taking the leap and no longer accepting coins and bills as fewer and fewer customers seem to be carrying cold hard cash.

The Green Wood, a popular brunch spot on Queen Street East near Greenwood Avenue, is one of them. The restaurant opened in December and decided in March to go completely cashless.

“We found that less than 10 per cent of our customers use cash and like all restaurants we spent a lot of time working the cash register,” one of the Green Wood’s managers, Tory Ferguson, told CBC Toronto.

Credit Cards Only sign

The article doesn’t raise the issue of people without plastic, but if there were some were among the 10% of the clientele using cash at this “trendy” eatery, their custom was clearly considered expendable. The article does ask whether the practice will add to consumer debt, which the manager assures them it will not because it’s not about debt, it’s about “convenience.” (Okay, then.)

Flash forward to 2020 and COVID has Maclean’s asking, “Will Canada go cashless post-pandemic?”

After quoting stats about “soaring” first-time Interac e-transfer payments, author John Lorinc notes:

The rush away from notes and coins has been so pronounced that even the Bank of Canada, which is responsible for the $92 billion in legal tender in circulation, weighed in this month, cautioning retailers not to stop accepting cash: “Refusing cash purchases outright will put an undue burden on those who depend on cash and have limited payment options,” the Bank said in a statement to the CBC.

The author doesn’t seem to have actually read the Bank statement he just quoted because his next line is:

Still, one can wonder why Canada shouldn’t follow countries like Sweden and move toward the goal of becoming all or mostly cashless.

And look at the list of transactions for which he believes cash is still necessary:

…it’s not difficult to think about transactions that would be difficult or impossible to manage without lucre: a $20 bill for the kid who shovels the sidewalk; the swear jar; that under-the-table repair job on the toilet in the basement.

Then, of course, there’s whatever people give to homeless individuals.

Square, a payment tech company, looked at the “plight” of “cash-only” businesses in 2020 in an attempt to encourage the 33% of Canadian businesses that accept cash-only to start taking cards. But even Square accepted that cash was not going away anytime soon, noting that 11% of Canadians don’t have a debit or credit card. Which doesn’t mean they don’t have a bank account, Lorinc writes that according to the Bank of Canada, 99% of Canadians have bank accounts, but many  are “under-banked,” (bank fees are so high they tend not to use plastic).

Interestingly, just a few weeks prior to the publication of Lorinc’s Maclean’s piece wondering why we don’t follow the example of Sweden (which uses cash less frequently than any country on earth), WIRED magazine ran a piece entitled, “Sweden’s cashless society dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” in which author Morgan Meaker cited a 2019 UK report, the Access to Cash Review, which uses Sweden as a cautionary tale:

Sweden, the most cashless society in the world, outlines the dangers of sleepwalking into a cashless society: millions of people could potentially be left out of the economy, and face increased risks of isolation, exploitation, debt and rising costs.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this huge issue, involving questions of cash access and cash use, the role of the central bank and the wisdom of relying entirely on the private sector to process payments, among other things, but I’ll have to put a pin in all that for now and get back to Percy…


Meet Percy

Percy is a Boston-based recruitment firm that promises “a blend of technology and human touch” and to “envelop our candidates with the human advice and support they need to find the right career path.” (SUCH an improvement over all those 1980s recruitment firms that used to envelop you in the advice of barnyard animals.)

The firm claims to “maintain pools” of pre-qualified, “on-demand candidates” in “major cities across the country.” (I lived in Prague, so immediately picture the barrels full of “on-demand” Christmas carp that appeared on every street corner in December.)

Percy’s owners think you would actually waste brain power wondering:

What brought the founder of a successful Boston-based staffing and recruiting firm, a Stanford and Boston Consulting Group-trained social entrepreneur, and a serial small company investor together to start Percy?

And to be honest, for the second I thought they were going to say “serial killer” I was actually interested.

But I’ve had enough of Percy and everyone else whose solution to the “labor shortage” involves anything other than hiring enough staff, paying them well and ensuring they have decent benefits and working conditions.


Vote Early, Vote Often

Today is voting day in Kraft Hockeyville — the polls open at 10:00 AM our time.

I can’t stand Ron MacLean (man, I sound cranky today, but I’m really not); I don’t like having to give up my birthdate, email and phone number to register to vote and may possibly have faked some of this information in order to do so (don’t ask); but I have been struck by the case being made by the girls of the Cape Breton Blizzard Hockey Association and would like to see them find a permanent home in CBU’s Canada Games Complex.

Kraft Hockeyville Home Page

The Blizzard has partnered with the Cape Breton Capers in a bid to win the Kraft Hockeyville top prize of $250,000 (plus the right to host an NHL pre-season game). The groups believe the money would be enough to bring the Canada Games Complex back to life — according to the Post‘s Jeremy Fraser, the venue requires new ice-making equipment, a Zamboni and some interior renos.

The president of the Blizzard is Christina Lamey — and yes, given our history of butting heads, you have every right to that smirk on your face right now — and she’s persuasive on the subject of ice time for girls, telling the Post:

We initiated this as an equity and fairness issue and we’ve been raising this issue for a little while now about how ice time is assigned in arenas.

Because we weren’t there in the 1960s and 1970s, we don’t get in now. It’s like taking discrimination from 40 years ago and getting to use it again and use it as a reason not to do something – it’s a roundabout way of trying to explain a system that doesn’t work for everyone.

Formed in 2018, the Blizzard now boasts 19 teams and 330 players.

You actually can vote early and often — there’s no limit on the number of times you can cast your virtual ballot. So, as Fraser explains:

…visit the Kraft Hockeyville website at Click on sign in or register, if you haven’t already registered do so. A voting option will be made available for the Canada Games Complex on the site’s main page.

Go Blizzard!