John Schmidt knows about opening restaurants. The owner of Seattle-area chains Lunchbox Laboratory and Neighborhood Grills, Schmidt opens a new store about once a year. And each time he completes a new build-out, he’s able to secure some services—like plumbing, electrical work, or roof work—without spending a dime. Instead of real dollars, he’s able to tap into his BizX account, a cashless alternative currency that allows restaurants and other businesses to capitalize on trading services.
“I’ll spend $150,000 on a new store,” Schmidt says. “And that leaves $150,000 in my pocket. So that’s huge.”
BizX’s premise is simple: Businesses build BizX dollars by offering goods and services to other businesses in the network. They can then spend those dollars with other in-network vendors. The company, which operates in the Seattle and Oakland, California, markets, also offers lines of credit, which help finance the opening of some new restaurants.
Schmidt first got started with BizX as a means to buy advertising without spending cash. But he now uses the cashless currency for all kinds of purchases: carpet, windows, furniture, electricians, and drywall.
“We pride ourselves on being able to work within this concept,” he says. “It takes a lot of patience. It’s not easy to always find what you want.”
Schmidt’s restaurants do between $15,000 and $18,000 a month in trade over the BizX exchange, giving him at least $150,000 for new construction projects each year. But it’s much easier to pay back with BizX than by making cash payments, he says. He makes good on his loans by accepting BizX cards from other customers one table at a time.
“It’s not like you bumped somebody,” he says. “It’s not a bad deal. It’s a smart deal. And it becomes really painless to pay the $150,000 back.”
BizX was created to help restaurants and other businesses capitalize on excess capacity—whether it’s an empty table at a restaurant or an idle construction crew. BizX community manager Matthew Beuschlein says the company’s loans helped finance the openings of 11 new restaurants last year. And its popularity is only growing.
“We have a network of motivated buyers or business owners that, instead of using cash, are able to use this alternative currency,” Beuschlein says. “A lot of people in the community are excited to go use their BizX somewhere else.”
In addition to paying back loans without ever writing a check, he says being in the BizX network helps restaurateurs bring in new business by luring other members into their stores. The company focuses on four sectors: restaurants, professional services, construction, and the automotive industry.
“We have great retention. Most people that come in and use the lines of credit see the value in it,” Beuschlein says. “They don’t have to go to a bank. Instead of making payments, they can just accept new business we’re bringing in through the network.”
And tapping into the currency is as easy as swiping a card. “It basically works like a debit account,” he explains.
Of course, any system that relies on trade is heavily tied to geography: It takes a strong local network of businesses offering varied goods and services to make it work.
Alicia Petrakis, chef/owner of Three Restaurant and Bar in San Mateo, California, says she can sometimes have trouble finding ways to spend her BizX dollars. There are plenty of businesses participating in BizX that operate on the east side of the San Francisco Bay, but Petrakis says her restaurant’s location in San Mateo—on the west side of the bay—is often a barrier. For instance, she needed new signage and had trouble finding a BizX sign company that was motivated to cross the bay.
“If only we weren’t separated by water. ... It’s such a physical line delineating the east bay from the west bay,” she says. “If it were 10 miles away, north or south, no one would think about it. But going over water, over a bridge, it’s an obstacle.”
Still, her restaurant has found uses for the alternative currency. She found a landscaper who offered half his payment in BizX bucks and the other half in cash. And because BizX can tap into other trade networks, she was even able to book a family vacation to Mexico to celebrate her son’s graduation. But she’s mostly spent BizX dollars on various employee incentives and rewards. She’s purchased gift cards, bought meals, rented party buses, and even took the team to ride go-carts.
“Any time you do something [like that] for your employees, you have to close, so we’re already losing revenue,” Petrakis says. “But, it really helps us to be able to still offer things for our employees.”
Three Restaurant and Bar does more than $200,000 a month in sales, of which BizX only accounts for about $1,000 to $1,500 a month. Still, Petrakis says she sees value in participating because she can expand her network of potential customers while stretching a dollar.
“There definitely is a lot of benefit,” she says. “It just whether or not it fits with your model.”