Small businesses bank on new locations

BUSINESS. As local bank branches close, small businesses are moving in - turning vaults into kitchens or stocking them with wine and using the drive-thru windows to sell bagels.

| 14 Dec 2023 | 11:14

Banks have steadily shuttered their brick-and-mortar branches nationwide for more than a decade in response to the rise in mobile banking.

The United States has not seen an increase in bank branch locations since 2009, when there were 81,918 in operation at year-end, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC). By the close of 2022, that number dwindled to 69,590.

The Port Jervis Bank on Route 6 in Port Jervis, N.Y., and Chase Bank on Route 23 in Wantage are both on the market.

A flier on the Wantage bank’s online listing offers potential buyers a multitude of suggestions for how the building could be reimagined: It could be a drive-thru fast-food restaurant, a school or a day-care center, a medical or dental office, an urgent-care facility or a retail store.

Breaking in the vault

As local branches vacate their lobbies and empty their safes, small businesses are taking up shop.

Vault Liquors opened in West Milford in 2020, taking over what was a Citizens First Bank in 1988 and, more recently, a Bank of America branch that closed in 2018.

The building sat empty for two years until Ted Porebski, owner of the building’s shopping plaza, decided to turn it into a liquor store. The renovations were minimal: he scrapped the desks and put in shelving and a bar. The old teller’s booths were turned into refrigerators. He stocked the vault with wine and took out the drive-thru windows to expand the parking lot.

Pop’s Bagelry, meanwhile, was drawn to a bank building for its drive-thru. The breakfast spot opened in May in a former Lakeland Bank branch in the Hewitt section of West Milford.

“I wanted the drive-thru,” said owner Eric Blasone. “I wanted to be the only bagel store with a drive-thru window.”

The drive-thru is the only bank feature Blasone kept intact. Everything else had to be remodeled; a kitchen had to be put in along with a bathroom and a dining area.

Taking out the vault

Unsurprisingly, the massive safes are hard to remove. The owner of the Fed of Warwick, a restaurant coming to Warwick, N.Y., knows the problem well.

The upscale-casual eatery is moving into a historic building, which was home to the First National Bank of Warwick, which opened in 1929. More recently, it was known as the Chase bank building. It has three vaults and “was built to be a bank from the ground up,” said Fed of Warwick owner Michael Tzezailidis.

The restaurant’s name - a food-inspired play on the nickname for the Federal Reserve - pays homage to the bank building’s history.

Tzezailidis has been working on renovations since before the pandemic, painstakingly restoring the building to its original art deco style: Taking out a drop ceiling to reveal the old bank’s 30-foot ceilings and ordering custom silicone molds to rebuild missing pieces of the original trim work.

One door of the main original double-vault will be on display for diners. The third vault is in the basement of the building.

The back of the main vault is now the Fed’s kitchen.

“The back of the house was storing money. Now it’s a kitchen. We had to convert that space,” said Tzezailidis. “And honestly, it was very, very difficult to make that happen; the building is all steel, all concrete, and it was built to be a bank - so it was crazy to make the space for a kitchen.”

‘I just had a curiosity with it’

Tzezailidis owns multiple restaurants, including Death Avenue in Manhattan, which makes its own beer. His original plan was to open a brewery in Warwick, but deals kept falling through in his search for farmland.

The old bank building, however, was available.

“I just had a curiosity with it,” he said. “I wasn’t planning on opening another restaurant upstate ... but I’m happy that I chose to do so, of course.”

So when is the Fed opening?

“I’m pushing really hard to have it done three years ago,” Tzezailidis said, laughing. COVID was a major setback. The renovations have been extensive.

He’s now planning to be open by the end of March.

“It’s still crazy,” he added. “I can’t wait to finish the build-out for this one.”

Tri-State trends
The U.S. has not seen an increase in bank branches since 2009, when there were nearly 82,000 open. Since then, that number has decreased 15 percent, with 69,590 branches open at the close of 2022.
Here’s how the tri-state area fared in comparison to the national data:
• New Jersey saw a 20 percent decrease, with 2,405 branches in 2009, and 1,914 in 2022.
• New York saw a 16 percent decrease, with 4,282 bank branches in 2009, and 3,593 in 2022.
• Pennsylvania saw a 12 percent decrease, with 3,383 bank branches in 2009, and 2,953 in 2022.
So who is the man in the vault?
Fed of Warwick owner Michael Tzezailidis is behind multiple Manhattan restaurants, including Death Avenue and Taqueria on Tenth. Originally from New York City, the restaurateur and his family moved to Warwick in 2017; he and his family discovered the area during an apple-picking trip.
The Fed of Warwick will be an upscale bar and grill with Greek influences. His Manhattan restaurant Death Avenue offers similar fare. As with the Fed, Death Avenue pulls inspiration from its building’s history; the Hudson River Railroad had a train running down 10th Avenue in front of what is now the restaurant in 1846, resulting in hundreds of pedestrian deaths, and the nickname “Death Avenue.”
According to the Death Avenue restaurant’s website:
“Death Avenue’s chef and operator, Michael Tzezailidis, takes a playful approach at fusing the American and Hellenic culinary experience. Being a born and raised New Yorker of Hellenic descent, Michael takes great pride in the taste and presentation of his traditionally inspired dishes.
“ ‘We want our dishes to please the eye, intrigue the curious mind and to be outright addictive. Growing up in a first-generation Greek household meant we spent way too much time in the kitchen. From watching to helping to cooking to arguing about cooking, my mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings and cousins have an ongoing yet silent competition when it comes to the kitchen. These are the ongoing comical pleasures for my family and me. I love it and I associate cooking with some of my most memorable moments.’ ”
- Molly Colgan