Old bank branches don't die-they just turn into hot dog stands, fur vaults, and nightclubs.
As banks across the country cast off their branches to embrace "alternative delivery channels," buyers are finding decidedly alternative uses for the buildings.
In Columbus, Ga., for instance, Sam Singer converted two drive-up window bays of an old First Union Corp. branch into a drive-in car wash. Elsewhere on the premises, he sells fried chicken and gasoline, with the vault storing frozen poultry.
"I have customers come in here all the time and say, 'This used to be my bank-it doesn't look the same,'" Mr. Singer says.
The morphing of bank branches into other businesses began in earnest a few years ago and has picked up as mergers and cost-cutting have accelerated. Many banks, in fact, intentionally seek out nonfinancial buyers for their branches, preferring to keep the sites out of the hands of competitors.
"Usually a bank doesn't want to give it to another bank because of the habit a customer has of going to that location," said Ann Hibbard, executive vice president of Atlantic Bancorp, Portland, Maine.
"If the location is convenient, customers will sometimes switch banks because of the convenience factor," she says. "And the bank certainly doesn't want to lose business to that."
As a result, Ms. Hibbard and others say, branches are increasingly enjoying new lives as restaurants, jewelry stores, pet stores, video rental outlets, film developers, drive-through liquor stores, computer stores, offices, and library branches.
In Manhattan, one old branch is now serving as a nightclub; in Maine, a branch has become a day-care center, with the vault serving as the director's office.
"It's really neat," said Bart Hill, president and chief executive officer of San Joaquin Bank in Bakersfield, Calif, citing a branch-turned- film-developer there. "You can pick up and deliver film through the drive- up window."
In fact, in a country full of entrepreneurial, can-do spirit, one Atlanta-area company even tried converting a branch into a funeral home.
The trend shows no signs of slowing as the industry's restructuring continues apace.
Bruegger's Bagels took over a former Loyola Federal Savings Bank branch at a busy corner in downtown Baltimore about three months ago. The Loyola branch was closed after Richmond, Va.-based Crestar Financial Corp. bought the $2 billion-asset Baltimore thrift last year.
Now, the once dark windows of the Loyola branch are clear and bright. And passersby can see bagels being boiled inside. Nothing remains of the bank's former self. "I wish there was some money lying around," joked Bruegger's manager Jim Holton.
First Union, based in Charlotte, N.C., has been one of the biggest suppliers of extra branches, having closed over 350 sites over the past five years.
The company has sold branches to restaurants, realty companies, brokerage firms, law firms, health-care facilities, and jewelry stores. Among its more frequent customers have been Aetna Health Care and the restaurant chains of Boston Chicken, Hardee's, and Checkers.
"Once these branches are advertised as closing, every broker within 50 miles ends up calling you," said Bill Transou, vice president of corporate real estate.
But while First Union officials would prefer not to give them to competitors, "the goal is to get rid of them as quickly as possible," Mr. Transou said.
Other bankers agreed. "I don't think financial institutions today have the luxury of controlling the use of the branches," said Fredric Forster, former president and chief operating officer of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, Calif. "If you're too picky, you're never going to get rid of that branch."
In some markets, there simply aren't enough nonfinancial buyers to handle the supply.
Dewitt, N.Y.-based Community Bank System Inc., for example, tried for a while to find a nonbank buyer for one branch, even targeting an off-track betting parlor. Ultimately, officials were unsuccessful, and another bank bought it.
Meanwhile, some community banks seeking to expand are often frustrated by a larger bank's desire not to sell to a potential competitor.
Atlantic Bancorp officials once tried to buy a vacant branch in South Portland, but were told that the current bank owner didn't want another bank in there. The bank was eventually able to buy the branch a year later.
In turning into nonbanks, some branches are coming full circle.
In Falmouth, Maine, one building served as a hot dog restaurant before becoming a bank branch in 1974. Then, after the bank was bought by People's Heritage in 1990, the branch was vacated for a year and turned into a dry cleaning shop.
Some of the enterprising business owners even take advantage of the property's former life in their choice of a business name, like the Yellowbrick Bank Restaurant & Inn in Shepardstown, W.Va., a 20-year-old restaurant well-known among Washington insiders. Entrepreneurs in Hartford, Conn., once turned a branch there into the Last National Bank restaurant, using the vault as a dining room.
And in Auburn, Ala., a former branch of Bank of Auburn is now an upscale coffeehouse catering to students and faculty at one corner of the sprawling Auburn University campus. It's name: Coffee Banque Cafe.
"We left as much intact as possible," said manager Tim Dean. "It looks old and worn, but adds an interesting character to the place. It looks as if it's been around since the turn of the century."