May 20--GREENSBORO -- From the outside, the little white building at the corner of Church Street and Wendover Avenue looks like a coffee shop.
Outdoor bistro tables and chairs are adjacent to small flower gardens that thrive. A sandwich board advertises daily coffee specials.
But once inside Cafegency, patrons quickly see this isn't your typical coffee shop.
First, there are signs that this is an unusual setup. Literally.
Signs that advertise coffee discounts for insurance customers.
The coffee shop houses an insurance agency. Or maybe the insurance agency offers its customers coffee. Either way, it's the only such business in Greensboro. And so far, owner and Nationwide sales agent Joe Fowler says it's doing well.
"From the outside, it looks strange and it is strange," Fowler says. "But there is a unified business model. ... There is a method to the madness."
Fowler launched the coffee side of his business about six months ago. He's gained momentum with his coffee clients, mainly through word of mouth and social media.
Coffee customers don't have to become Nationwide customers, and insurance clients aren't obligated to purchase coffee. Fowler knows if they try to pitch insurance, coffee customers won't return. Instead, he hopes that by first drawing loyal coffee customers, they might consider his agency when it comes time to renew their insurance policies. And they already will know his agents from their coffee breaks.
"We're just meeting people and having fun. If they want to buy insurance, great. If they want to buy coffee, great," Fowler says.
Fowler started selling insurance for State Farm when he was an English major at Wake Forest University back in 1993. After college, he worked for Nationwide for 15 years, before running his own agency.
He rented the Wendover Avenue location for three years, then bought the building in 2010. Fowler started seeing changes in the insurance industry.
"The traditional insurance business is fading away," he says. "The days of an insurance agent on every corner is gone."
Greg Brown, a 30-year insurance veteran, says the Internet makes it easier for people to shop around.
According to Insurance Networking News, nearly half of insurance consumers use the Internet to gather information about insurance. Still, the publication reports, personal interaction is important. When consumers receive information directly from an agent, 80 percent will make a purchase from them.
And when it comes to innovation, the industry tends to look at social media and technology. Insurance Networking News also reports that innovation within the industry is limited because of a challenging regulations, individual state legislation and product restrictions.
North Carolina is particularly unique in its rules and regulations, says Brown, a Greensboro sales manager for Nationwide. All insurance companies in this state have the same contract, he says -- a consumer advantage that keeps average rates lower than that of most others. But, again, innovation must come from elsewhere.
Fowler's approach -- developing relationships by offering good customer service through an entirely different business -- is unusual.
"Coffee is habitual. It creates repeat interactions with people," Fowler says. "People may see us once a week or five times a week."
He believes that these interactions will lead to more insurance clients.
Agent Ashleigh Mc-Farlin says the approach works. Although she's unable to determine exactly how much it's increased her salary, she says the difference is noticeable. Just as Fowler envisioned, she's gotten new insurance customers through the coffee side of the business.
And to McFarlin's relief, Fowler assured his staff of six that they would not have to make drinks.
Fowler aims to sustain coffee customer loyalty by offering only organic coffee and quality products. He also trained as a barista at Carolina Coffee, which supplies his beans. He brews coffee in small batches, tops specialty drinks with homemade whipped cream and uses Ghirardelli chocolate -- at lower prices than many coffee shops.
A 16-ounce cup of coffee -- that's a grande size at Starbucks -- costs exactly one dollar, including tax. Sixteen-ounce lattes and mochas are $3, including tax.
This is possible, Fowler says, because his business model allows advantages for both businesses.
Fowler believes there will be additional Cafegencies. Future Cafegencies may even have drive-thru windows.
"It's a big idea, and we've got a small budget, but it's the big ideas that change things," Fowler says.
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