Last week, I walked into a hip coffee shop nestled between Ann Taylor Loft and Urban Outfitters. Located in a family-friendly Chicago neighborhood on a cheerful, bustling street, the cafe didn’t appear to be anything other than typical. However, I soon learned that Next Door Cafe was offering a lot more than your run-of-the-mill espresso.
Walking in, I saw a long wooden bar flanked with a case of fancy pastries. The 25-year-old hipster barista casually asked if I wanted to open a tab, assuming that I was going to stay for more than one latte. I took out my laptop and settled into a picnic table on wheels (all the furniture is on wheels so that the layout can change week to week).
The wall behind me showcased paintings by local artists, all of which appeared to be on sale. Other whiteboard-covered walls were everywhere, filled with inspirational quotes and goals for a community winter coat drive. Everything in the store was temporary and configurable; perhaps as a reminder that we should always be evolving.
A hostess sat near the front door like a hotel concierge. Her job was to greet guests and coordinate walk-in appointments. Wait… appointments? At a coffee shop? You bet — Next Door Cafe is doing something really unique to help Chicagoans with their money.
Two full-time, on-site financial planners hold office hours during the week, as well as a few weekends a month. Appointments are held in pods, or giant cubes outfitted with two couches and a table (also on wheels). In the privacy of a pod, anyone can discuss personal financial goals such as budgeting, understanding car loans, paying off debt, and saving for retirement. Some topics are handled in a single session, while others take multiple visits. Everything is tailored to an individual, and unlike a traditional advising appointment, every session is free. It’s approachable and it’s inclusive.
More than just money
It’s not just for people seeking financial help, either. A woman sitting at my table was sketching in her journal while she waited for the How to Self-Publish a Book lecture to start. She comes to many events because she likes networking with other authors. Do so has shown her new ways to make her business more efficient; “Artists and entrepreneurs like me need help,” she explained.
Several days out of the week, the café holds lectures about money. Aside from that, local volunteers teach about entrepreneurship, social media, and self-development. I heard there has even been a yoga class. The classes are diverse because they are led by local professionals. These volunteers submit their ideas and agree to share their expertise for free.
Those who prefer more personalized attention can schedule appointments online for one-on-one advice. They can cover any topic in which they have a need, including setting up businesses, writing resumes, configuring WordPress, and even life-coaching — just to name a few. The café seems to understand that personal finance is more than just budgeting. Being financially successful encompasses knowledge, business skills, and the ability to manage stress.
People of varying ages and industries come together to learn from one another. For example, the coffee shop is also a pitstop for students. I spoke with a young PhD candidate who has been coming to the cafe several days a week, simply because she enjoys the staff and the atmosphere. She explained, “Most of the time, I just study. But, sometimes I reserve the conference rooms in the back for group meetings and study marathons. It’s really convenient.” Like everything else, the rooms are free and temporary walls can adapt from one large room to two smaller ones.
The café also uses this space to hold group sessions. Here, groups meet regularly to learn and support each other in reaching their individual financial goals, such as debt reduction and combining finances. The store manager told me that attendees often become good friends. They tend to have a lot in common, so they continue to hang out after the classes meet.
The café seems to believe that support is a foundation of success. They embrace the sharing economy and have found a way to create self-sustaining communities that continue outside of the café.
What’s the catch?
By now, you may be wondering how this is all possible. How can everything — except the coffee — be free? Well, Next Door Café is a marketing and research experiment funded by State Farm. In exchange for the space, baristas, and financial coaches, they collect endless insights about future customer needs and have an environment to float concepts and ideas.
While there is only one location and no public plans for expansion, the financial industry should take notice. For mainstream financial education and support, this model is working. Next Door Café is speaking to Millennials in a way that resonates with their values and appeals to their norms. They have made financial wellness approachable, holistic, and community-driven. I suspect that more companies will replicate the fundamentals of this model as a way to develop deeper relationships with their customers.
What do you think about the Next Door Cafe? If you’re in the Chicago area, have you visited yet?
Updated December 10, 2016 and originally published December 8, 2016.