First Citizens brewing up coffee shop bank

The bank of the future is coming to one of Main Street’s most historic buildings.

First Citizens is transforming a storefront in the 143-year-old Brennen Building into a coffee shop where the public can enjoy a moderately priced, locally roasted brew while working on their laptops using free Wi-Fi.

Oh, and if someone wants to open a checking account or apply for a credit card, an in-shop banker can help on the spot.

“It will feel like a regular coffee shop,” bank spokeswoman Angela English said. “But it’s also a relaxed, engaging space where you can get useful information and advice to help you manage your financial life.”

The coffee shop is the latest business to announce plans for Columbia’s burgeoning Main Street, which has experienced a renaissance in the past two years since the opening of Mast General Store and the relocation of the Nickelodeon Theater.

The coffee shop as bank branch concept, while new to Columbia, has been adopted by large banks in some major cities, University of South Carolina finance professor Tim Koch said. It’s an effort to attract new customers in an age when fewer and fewer people actually use a bank branch.

“Not many banks do it because it is very expensive,” said Koch, a community bank advocate.

First Citizens president Peter Bristow said he got the idea while visiting New York. ING bank had a coffee shop branch in Manhattan that was brimming with people. Another bank’s traditional branch down the street was empty.

“People don’t go to banks to hang out,” he said. “This builds brand awareness.”

But don’t expect bank coffee shops to start popping up on every street corner. Different demographics require different concepts.

“If you put this in the suburbs, where there isn’t a lot of foot traffic, it wouldn’t work,” UNC-Charlotte finance professor Tony Plath said.

For instance, a bank in a wealthy Vancouver suburb has created a “financial spa.” A customer is met by a concierge at the door and is handed a free cappuccino and a hot towel. Kids are provided a play zone while mom relaxes by a rock garden fountain.

The coffee shop concept, Koch said, appeals to young professionals – the very folks who populate the law firms and government offices that surround the Brennen Building, which is located at 1210 Main St., a half-block from the State House.

“They might be financial rookies new to money management,” Koch said. “This concept establishes a brand with them.”

The coffee shop also will embrace a developing Main Street ethos – buying local. The coffee will be supplied by local roaster Turtle Creek and the pastries by downtown restaurant Crepes & Croissants.

The bank also is leasing an adjacent storefront in the building to local chef Kristian Niemi. Niemi plans to open Bourbon – a Cajun/creole-inspired restaurant and bourbon-based cocktail bar – in the fall.

“I think it’s fantastic that they are staying local in both spaces,” Niemi said. “They are pairing a local restaurant with a local roaster and local pastries.”

But the coffee shop also still will be a bank. In addition to rainforest-friendly java and tasty tarts, the First Citizens Cafe, as it is called, will have an image deposit ATM and a conference room where clients can consult with an in-shop banker. Even the barista will be familiar enough with the bank’s services to answer questions.

The shop will be open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. when it debuts in mid-August. But Bristow said he plans to keep the shop and a large adjacent courtyard busy with evening events.

For instance: A historian could be brought in to discuss the architectural significance of the State House, or the Brennan Building itself, which the bank has carefully renovated at great and undisclosed expense with the help of the S.C. Department of History and Archives. The building was built circa 1870, just five years after most of downtown Columbia burned to the ground during the Civil War.

UNC-Charlotte’s Plath called First Citizens’ concept “smart.”

“It’s the perfect place for it,” he said. “The State House is right there. The university is right there. The law firms are right there. It’s a way to differentiate the bank in a way that complements the demographic. And (the renovations to Brennen) build good will in the community. It makes perfect sense.”

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