Bank to Beans: Coffee Shop Owners Repurpose a Mid-Century Icon
One of the first things that caught Alissa Hodge’s eye when she moved to Columbus, Indiana, with her family was the former Irwin Union Bank building, a 1960s-era structure designed by renowned Chicago architect Harry Weese. He meant for the gray-glazed brick building to reflect a child’s vision of a castle, though it’s nicknamed the “dead horse” by locals because its four brick towers stretch upward like legs.
The other thing that she noticed about the town was that it was missing local specialty coffee. “There wasn’t anything like what we were looking for … so we decided to make it ourselves,” Hodge told LoopNet.
Alissa and her husband and business partner Tyler Hodge opened their first Lucabe Coffee Co. location, named after their three children Lucas, Calvin, and Bella (the couple’s fourth baby didn’t arrive in time to get her share of the Lucabe name, but still stakes her claim as a specialty latte menu item), in 2017 after years of dreaming, crowdfunding, and location scouting.
As the couple was beginning to think about expanding to a second location, things fell into place for the Hodges to open their next coffee shop in the very building she’d envisioned one day occupying 10 years earlier.
“I always thought that building would make the coolest coffee shop, but also thought there was no way it would never not be a bank,” said Hodge. But in 2019, Lucabe’s owners found out that not only was First Financial, which had owned and occupied the property since 2008, selling the branch, but it had contract stipulations that did not allow the company to sell to another bank.
“When you drive past it, whether you know it’s a coffee shop or not, the building catches your eye and makes you wonder what’s going on there.”Alissa Hodge, owner, Lucabe Coffee Co.
The Hodges bought the property in early 2021 after it had sat vacant for a year during the pandemic.
“I think character matters a lot when it comes to a building. This town has such a rich history of architecture, and I thought it would be such a gift to be able to continue to give this building life,” said Hodge. And not just because it’s cool-looking, she added, but as business owners that care about investing in their community, “we get to be part of the history of what’s happening here in Columbus with architecture and [historic preservation].”
Banking on Bold Design
One of the main goals for the Lucabe owners was to restore the 5,000-square foot, split-level building to reflect its original character as much as possible. “We wanted to bring the building back to that era where a bank wasn’t a cold, rigid place,” described Hodge.
The building’s original floors were vibrant green slate tiles, but had been covered by carpet after a 2008 flood — which took a painstaking effort to remove, as it had been adhered to the slate with several layers of glue. But beyond the striking floors, the couple didn’t want to add in too much color, instead aiming to “bring back as much of the clean finishes as physically possible” with a color palate of black, grays and warm woods.
The original layout allowed a straight sightline through the space to the vault, but when the couple purchased the building, it was full of office cubicles from the previous occupants. “Our goal was to open it up to be as big as possible in order to be able to see from the front door all the way to the back wall.”
Keeping the space open required some creative design ideas, like camouflaging the restrooms with wooden slat doors and panels that matched the bar so they looked like a piece of furniture or décor rather than “a giant box in the middle of the room.”
The bank vault is now a kids’ play space, an important element for the business owners who wanted to make the environment kid-friendly and relaxed for parents. They also converted the elevated former manager’s office into a lofted seating space.
As much as the renovation was primarily a DIY project for the mom and pop shop, Hodge noted that they couldn’t have done it without the expertise and consultations of architecture firm Daugherty Design Plus, who helped them navigate code requirements and the Landmark Columbus Foundation, a nonprofit organization that seeks to preserve architecturally significant buildings in the city.
“There were so many people in the community that wanted to see this project succeed, and they were willing to freely offer their advice and support,” she described. “Landmark’s director Richard McCoy put us in contact with so many knowledgeable people that could come alongside us to troubleshoot design considerations, code requirements and more. It was a team effort to even try to tackle some of these problems before we started.”
The Hodges are currently in the midst of getting the property officially registered as a historic building, a process they started before they began any work on the coffee shop to make sure upgrades would meet the requirements for certification.
Doubling Down on a Drive-Thru
Iconic architecture wasn’t the only thing that attracted the Hodges to the bank building. The business owners of course had practical considerations too.
A non-negotiable for Lucabe’s next location was that it had to incorporate a drive-thru .
The bank already had teller windows outside the building, and the owners restored one of the four towers to create a new drive-thru lane. They then converted the other side of the bank’s original drive-thru lane into patio seating overlooking the creek.
Since Lucabe is a company that prides itself on a high standard of customer service, the Hodges initially worried that implementing a drive-thru would compromise their focus on service and the welcoming environment they strive to create indoors, which quick and convenient drive-thru lanes traditionally reflect.
“We had to be sure that we could still serve well, so we looked at other businesses that use a drive-thru but still prioritize hospitality , like Chick-fil-A.” But even with such guiding examples, they still weren’t fully convinced.
But then COVID hit, and the Hodges knew they had to put any reservations about drive-thrus aside, as it was now an absolute necessity for their business’s survival.
“We realized during that time that we really had to make a drive-thru work. Especially if a shutdown ever happened again, it would be our number one route of profitability, other than us walking coffee out to people’s cars for curbside delivery,” said Hodge. “So it was a no-brainer for us in 2020 that we couldn’t pick a location if the drive-thru didn’t work out.”
Supporting a drive-thru can sort of be like running two coffee shops, described Hodge, noting that the drive-thru has a dedicated espresso machine to make sure customers receive the same level of attention and drink delivery speed whether they order from their cars or walk in to the counter.
“The drive-thru has now accomplished what we thought it would, which is allow us to tap into a different customer base in the community that might not be able to come into the shop, whether they’re in a rush and don’t have time to park, don’t want to get their kids out of the car, or for other reasons,” said Hodge. “But as a mom and pop shop, we are definitely still troubleshooting aspects of it like how to handle online ordering and the timing of it, for example, because we’ve never run a drive-thru before.”
The bank’s location was another significant draw for a Lucabe location. The building is perched overlooking the Haw Creek River, which provides great views from the outdoor patio seating, and is along the Columbus People Trail heavily used by joggers, bikers and walkers.
The building stands alone at the intersection of four major crossroads in Columbus, and “it’s practically dead-center in the community,” described Hodge. “When you drive past it, whether you know it’s a coffee shop or not, the building catches your eye and makes you wonder what’s going on there.”