Banh mi at Fu-Wah Mini Market (Courtesy Fu-Wah)

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One of West Philly’s most popular hoagie shops has started taking credit cards for the first time in its 41-year history. Customers are rejoicing over Fu-Wah Mini Market’s move away from cash only — and the change has been good for business, too.

“Everything we do, it’s to help the customers,” proprietor Dave Lai told Billy Penn. “We’ve had the system a month now, it’s doing very well for us. Slowly, I can see everybody’s a lot happier.”

Retail stores in Philadelphia are required to accept cash, per a 2019 law meant to increase equity, since not everyone has a credit card or bank account with associated debit card. The opposite isn’t true — stores don’t have to accept credit cards. 

But even compared to four years ago, when Philly’s rule was passed, fewer people are carrying cash. Last year, about 40% of Americans said they never use it, according to a Pew survey, almost double the figure from 2018. And just 1 in 7 people said they commonly use cash for typical purchases. 

Open at 47th and Baltimore Avenue since 1982, Fu-Wah is probably best known for its tofu banh mi and other hoagies, both Vietnamese and Philadelphia style. But the small space also sells organic groceries and dry goods from Asia and around the world. 

Customers who would snag additional items from the shelves to buy with their sandwiches were often disappointed to reach the counter and learn they couldn’t pay via credit card, Lai said.

He and three siblings co-own the 1,000-sq.-ft. shop, which their parents worked to open after landing in Philly with the help of the Nationalities Service Center as they fled a 1970s North Vietnam “re-education camp.” Soon after launching the market, they opened Vietnam Restaurant in Chinatown, which the family still runs, along with Vietnam Cafe in University City.

The two full-service restaurants have taken credit cards since the start, according to Lai, but the associated fees made it impractical for Fu-Wah, where many orders are less than $10. The market tried it once before, he said, but found it “way too expensive.”

What’s different this time? For one, business is brisk. 

The petite kitchen goes through more than 200 Liscio’s hoagie rolls daily (tofu is the most popular, followed by char-grilled pork, then shredded chicken). Plus, Lai said, the Cedar Park neighborhood’s revitalization over the past decade has meant more customers for groceries — and he makes sure the selection evolves to cater to their needs.

“If the times change, we change with the times. You don’t see a product sitting there since 1980,” Lai said, referring to his constant review of what’s stocked on market shelves.

The other game-changer was signing up with Square, the point of sale system. Before it was implemented, sales at Fu-Wah were approximately 70% hoagies and 30% groceries, Lai said. Since starting to accept credit cards, it’s more like 50/50.

“Both sides are doing well,” Lai said. The 48-year-old shared a sunny outlook for Fu-Wah’s future: “I’m going to keep it going until I can’t do it anymore.”

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Danya Henninger

Danya Henninger is director of Billy Penn at WHYY, where she oversees the team, all editorial decisions, and all revenue generation — including the...