Thursday, September 13, 2012

Shadyside ice cream bank wants to handle your cold, hard cash - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The teller window at Whalebone Cafe Bank in Shadyside looks a lot like an ice cream counter.

That's because it is.

The start-up operation is the brainchild of Ethan Clay, the owner of Oh Yeah! ice cream and coffee shop on Highland Avenue, where he recently started his own version of a community bank.

Mr. Clay, who sees his bank as a way to offer local residents low-cost banking services, doesn't have many depositors yet. But he has drawn the attention of state banking regulators, who late Wednesday said they'll be moving to shut him down.

The store owner says he has been working for about two years on a way to stick it to the big banks following some unpleasant experiences, including racking up some $1,600 in overdraft fees after overdrawing his account by $200.

"I'm just really clear that the retail banks in Pittsburgh are not out in the best interest of small businesses or individuals," he said.

Promotional materials for his new bank are sweeter than a scoop of cake batter ice cream. "Whalebone is a friendly 'bank' creating a low cost and non-punitive form of banking," a flier states.

A sign on the front door urges customers to "Skip the Banks" and deposit money with Whalebone, which touts "5%+ Oh Yeah interest" per month on simple savings accounts, "beat the fee" loans and check-cashing services.

"Just got my paycheck cashed today and I'm planning on opening an account very soon," said a post on Whalebone's Facebook page last week.

So far, Whalebone has attracted a handful of depositors and made three loans, according to Mr. Clay, who opened his ice cream business five years ago.

His "working prototype" for a bank appears headed for a showdown with regulators, however.

Places that accept deposits or make loans have to be licensed or chartered by state or federal regulators. Whalebone is not.

"We're not OK with what he is doing. We're [going to be] telling him to stop," Pennsylvania Department of Banking spokesman Ed Novak said late Wednesday. He said that because the business falls in a gray area, "We don't have the authority to punish him, but the DA does."

"If he doesn't stop, I think he will be hearing from the district attorney," Mr. Novak said.

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