Dai pai dong till norms

Today was a day of exploring till norms – ways that places store their cash and make change, making their cashflow, well, flow. Dai pai dong are a vanishing Hong Kong institution – street-based eateries that thrive in the negative spaces between Hong Kong’s highrises, and often focused upon serving up affordable, classic versions of special dishes. While the remaining 25 are still legally permitted to operate, their off-the-grid nature means that, like their tables and chairs, their “cash registers” or tills have to be inherently portable.

It isn’t obvious at first glance, but this picture contains three different cash storage spots, each with their own separate purpose. In this dai pai dong, the largest bills live out of (most) arms’ easy reach, laying in the bottom of a cracked metal bowl and weighed down by a trivet. Perched atop the shelf that holds supplies like bowls and tabletop accessories like sauces and toothpicks, this least-often accessed till is also the hardest one to get to (by extension also keeping contents the safest). A lack of visibility into the bowl isn’t a problem, though – this functions as a “one-way street” most of the time, with the large bills flowing in through multiple exchanges over the course of the evening, but only needing to be withdrawn and counted once, when the stall closes down for the night.

Smaller bills live on the hip-height shelf in the thick of things, where most of the cooking-related action also occurs. Here, cash is stashed in a plastic bucket nearby a family of fast-moving ingredient bowls on the cook surface, placing them in easy reach for making quick change.

Finally, coins live in a pair of low plastic bowls, not far from the small-bill-bowl, and divided roughly by denomination. They’re covered by a spare menu to keep potentially prying hands and eyes from gaining easy access.

For a double-feature, further up the road and earlier in the day, some other members of the design team sat down for lunch at a different cash-only back alley establishment – this one specializing in instant ramen noodles served in a thick beef broth, covered in savory canned tomatoes. In this instance, the “register” walks up to your at the same time as your “bill” – both in the form of your server. One of her hands produces a fold of bills from one of her apron pockets, while the other carries a plastic bowl of coins. As she goes around the table, rapid-fire, recounting everything that myself and each of my colleagues ordered as she points at us, tallying it up and making quick change.

How do cash-only business’ cashflows “flow” where you are? How do tills look in your neck of the woods?

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