A Bite with Bitcoins: Local Food Businesses That Accept the Online Currency

click to enlarge The BitDonut. | Illustration by Kelsey Meyer
The BitDonut. | Illustration by Kelsey Meyer

Even before it had a bricks-and-mortar shop, Strange Donuts (2709 Sutton Boulevard, Maplewood; 314-932-5851) was big on experimentation. It did, after all, create a hamburger doughnut with pimento Cheez Whiz. But the next frontier in the done zone is not how the doughnuts are made -- it's how they're paid for. The shop hopes to soon accept digital currencies like Bitcoins and DogeCoins.

See also: A Pre-Dawn Line for Donuts (Not Cronuts)

"DogeCoin just helped raise over $30,000 for the Jamaican bobsled team," co-owner Corey Smale tells Gut Check. "When I heard that story, I was like, 'This is a real thing, and there's a real community behind it. Why don't we just take that next natural step?'"

Bitcoin was launched in 2009 as a "peer-to-peer payment network" by Japanese developer Satoshi Nakamoto (who, it turns out, is probably not a real person). It's a currency that exists virtually and is transferred via the Internet. The inventors of Bitcoin claim it has many advantages. It is supposed to be a universal currency immune to exchange rates, and it's not backed by any government. The value has skyrocketed over the past few months; as of today, Bitcoins are trading at around $800 each. If you still don't get the concept (our understanding could reasonably be described as "tenuous"), here's the Wikipedia entry on Bitcoins or watch this video:

There are of course downsides. Bitcoins are criticized for being extremely volatile -- in 2013, they were worth as much as $266 each, then plummeted to a low of $50. And they've been used for some shady business. In fact, the vice chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation was just charged with money laundering. The U.S. government says Bitcoins have been used to buy illegal drugs online.

Strange Donuts is not the first local business to try accepting Bitcoins. Local food-delivery service GrubGo actually began accepting them as payment for dozens of St. Louis restaurants back in 2012, but it stopped this past November. GrubGo owner Peter Wheeler tells us that in the end, Bitcoins were just too volatile to be useful, and he was leery of the allegations of criminal activity floating around the Bitcoin name.

"It was an interesting concept, and for lack of a better term, it was something we were engaging on a marketing level," he says. "We did get a great deal of interest initially from people who had adopted it early and were backing it because they really believed in it."

After that, though, Wheeler says GrubGo didn't get any Bitcoin orders for about a year. He eventually decided it wasn't worth the trouble -- none of the restaurants he delivered from accepted Bitcoins, and doing the conversions was a pain. "We're certainly always looking at reconsidering it. We're trying to be cutting edge," Wheeler says.

The only other restaurant in St. Louis currently accepting Bitcoins is Cafe di Organo (1221 Locust Street; 314-678-2000), a coffee shop downtown. It has been accepting Bitcoins for about two weeks, and co-owner Jono Casino tells us that the response has been overwhelmingly positive.

"Part of our coffee-shop ethos is being a little trendy and up with the times. We have USB chargers by the tables so you can charge your phone, and we do siphon-brewing coffee," Casino says. "Bitcoins are obviously another step: at one, advancing our image; and two, it's really convenient for us to accept."

People as far out as Lake St. Louis and even Jefferson City have reached out to Cafe di Organo about using Bitcoins, and a group of downtown entrepreneurs who use the currency have even taken to meeting once a month at the shop. Casino uses them himself -- he says he just purchased an order of office supplies with them.

Unlike Wheeler, Casino says the Bitcoin drug deals don't worry him -- as he points out, far more illegal activity is facilitated by the U.S. dollar. "It has the same pitfalls as normal currency," he says. "As far as being volatile, when you treat it as a currency as opposed to a commodity, it makes a lot more sense for a merchant to accept and deliver goods that way."

Smale says Strange Donuts will hopefully be accepting BitCoins and DogeCoins (another online currency) by the end of this week. Happy Badger in Maplewood is building iPhone and Android apps for the Strange Donuts transactions.

"Our business started on Kickstarter -- I'm down with using technology to do new things," Smale says. "I'm not trying to get all our money through BitCoin, but if I can get a handful of people in there, embracing new technology if it doesn't take off, then fuck it, it doesn't take off, but it's a new opportunity."

At its current rate, one Strange done should run you about 0.00253 Bitcoins. Or, you know, $2.

Gut Check is always hungry for tips and feedback. E-mail the author at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter.

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