Welcome To a New Way of Banking! Americanos and ATMs in the Capital One Cafe

Imagine being in a cafe—any cafe—and you’ll know what it’s like to be in a Capital One Cafe. Generic by design, they mobilize the characteristic trappings of a contemporary coffee shop (a marble bar, white subway tiles, light wood minimalist furniture, a bearded beanie-clad barista) to create a space that is both immediately familiar and completely forgettable at once: a stunning example of what the anthropologist Marc Augé has termed a non-place. If a place is somewhere grounded in a specific location, set of relations, and history, a non-place is the opposite, an anonymous, liminal space made to be passed through.

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It’s a strange design choice for a coffee shop, especially given that the current industry standard seems to aim at creating a “third place,” a space outside of home and work, where people come together to socialize and connect with others. Even massive chains like Starbucks fall in line with this philosophy, and their mission statement on store design emphasizes that each one of their branches “should be a welcoming, inviting and familiar place for people to connect,” and so they design their stores “to reflect the unique character of the neighborhoods they serve.” In contrast, the 32 Capital One Cafe branches all feel interchangeable, eschewing placemaking to instead try and make you forget where you really are, which is in the lobby of a bank.

Then again, everything is strange about a cafe inside of a bank. I had initially assumed the cafes were the brainchild of millennials in marketing who just simply cannot get enough of lattes and avocado toast. But after parsing through pages and pages of PR fluff, a different history was unearthed. Capital One only began operating cafes after its 2011 purchase of ING, a rival bank that had operated what they called “ING Direct Cafes.” The ING Direct Cafes were a frequent target of criticism from community organizers, who saw them as little more than a scheme for the bank to avoid its financial responsibility under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, which requires banks to contribute to the local areas surrounding their branches by providing a certain amount of loans to low- to moderate-income borrowers. Conveniently, ING never had to abide by this rule, since, as they steadfastly asserted, every cafe was technically not a bank branch, but instead something like a “marketing office.” In this light, the aesthetic of the non-place felt less clueless and somewhat more sinister, with a new sense of purpose and urgency behind its forgetability.

Though the reassuring blandness of the space—intended to counteract the stress that comes with thinking about one’s finances—does create a convincing cafe, it’s never quite able to shake the strange sense of the simulacrum. It ultimately feels a bit like a game of Spot the Difference: at first glance, it’s just a warm, comforting space, but the more time spent there, the more apparent the financial features become, the neon-lit ATMs, signs showing the bank’s services strewn throughout the space (a particularly large series of signs above my table reads “Welcome to a new way of banking!”), and cases of flyers on each table advertising Capital One’s new “Money Coaching” consultation.

The motivating ethos (Be forgettable!) of the Capital One Cafe extends beyond design. to the food and drinks offered. Every Capital One Cafe is operated by Peet’s Coffee, a chain from the bay area whose founder, Alfred Peet, is commonly credited with founding the specialty coffee movement in the U.S. This history notwithstanding, Peet’s has become just another mass market coffee shop, essentially interchangeable with Starbucks or Coffee Bean. Eager to try out both the food and drink on offer at the Union Square Capital One Cafe, I ordered a small Americano and a blueberry muffin.

It wasn’t too busy on the weekday afternoon I chose to visit, and the service was quick. The barista handed me the muffin immediately, and my Americano was served shortly thereafter. While waiting for my drink to cool, I started on the oversized blueberry muffin, intending to tear off a small piece. Unfortunately, the muffin’s structure buckled under my touch, revealing a soft inside, barely held together within the slightly toothsome crust. The flavor itself was incredibly okay. Perfectly adequate, it approached the platonic form, tasting exactly how a store-bought box-of-mix muffin should.

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The Americano, sadly, was worse. Jet black and piping hot, the thin, watery crema quickly dissipated. By the time it had cooled enough to take a sip, all that was left was 12 oz of foreboding coffee, a black hole into a dark abyss. Much like the muffin, its bouquet was generic, with notes of the Maillard reaction and memories of gas station coffee gulped down in order to stay awake. The deep brew tasted accordingly: thin, acrid, and frankly, burnt. Sugar or milk would certainly have helped tame the harsh taste, but I continued to drink it black. A thoroughly unpleasant experience all around.

Of course, Capital One isn’t trying to create the perfect cup of joe. I wasn’t blown away by any of the cafe’s offerings, but it’s especially important to remember that this isn’t the point of the cafe at all. While I’m sure the baristas on shift met all of Peet’s standards, the cafe does not exist to educate consumers on the journey from bean to brew, or on the intricacies of the perfect pour over. Instead, it is only a means to an end.

Seen in this light, the space of the cafe becomes more important than the food and coffee offered. Sure, it’s aesthetically unremarkable, but who really cares? With so many high-end cafes and restaurants desperately trying to create an (Instagramable) identity—yet somehow managing to all look very similar while becoming less comfortable and accessible—it’s a pleasure to be somewhere bland that doesn’t aggressively assert itself or demand appreciation. Even the service was laid back. During my time there, I never saw any bank or cafe employees working the floor, which created a particularly relaxed vibe. One elderly man sat slumped over by the window, asleep in front of his laptop, while a pair of friends chatted excitedly over coffees purchased next door at Dunkin’ Donuts. The space was warm and the bathroom was clean and free to use—something nearly unheard of in lower Manhattan. While it’s undoubtedly annoying to sit surrounded by signs and advertisements for a bank, but if that’s the cost of access to a space like this, it’s certainly—just like the coffee served at the Cafe— a fair trade.