SAN FRANCISCO
07/13/2011 09:10 pm ET | Updated Sep 12, 2011

Bernal Heights Prints Own Currency

If, like some in the international banking community, you're bearish on the dollar at the moment, it might behoove you to invest in Bernal Bucks--the new unofficial "official" currency of Bernal Heights.

Bernal Bucks function a bit like airline frequent flier miles. But instead of racking up free flights, customers are awarded money they can spend at 19 participating locally-owned, neighborhood businesses. With Bernal Bucks being accepted all over the notoriously insular 'hood, from Good Life Grocery to Joshin Bruguera Notary to Pilates Heights, the currency's reach has a surprising sweep of the average Bernal Heights resident's everyday needs.

It works like this: residents get a Visa debit issued by Cortland Ave.-based Mission SF Federal Credit Union. As participants spend money with their cards, they earn Bernal Bucks that can be printed out on their computers in $10 increments and redeemed wherever the brightly colored dollars are accepted. For every dollar charged on the cards, the cardholder earns back five cents in Bernal Bucks.

This system helps to keep money circulating inside the tightly knit Bernal Heights community, and that's precisely how Arno Hesse and Guillaume Lebleu, the co-founders of the company behind Bernal Bucks, envisioned it. "We wanted to use our buying power for our own good instead of leakage to the Costcos, Trader Joe's, Safeways and Home Depots of this world, which don't do much for the neighborhood," Hesse told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding, "the buck shops here."

The idea that begat Bernal Bucks began in 2009 when Hess and Lebleu started selling stickers neighborhood residents could affix to dollar bills that functioned like coupons. If someone presented a stickered dollar to a participating Bernal Heights business, they would either receive a discounted price on the purchased item or get something for free like a pastry from Moonlight Café or an apple from Good Life Grocery. Hesse and Lebleu envisioned the bills staying in local circulation around the neighborhood and yielding fresh benefits every time they were used. However, the stickers' convoluted nature proved too complicated for residents to wrap their minds around and the plan was quickly dropped.

Hesse and Lebleu's next idea, $20 gift certificates sold though an area community center, was met with similar confusion. As Mission Local reports:

The system caught on snags. Store clerks were confused about how to handle the certificates. Certificate holders couldn't keep track of which reward coincided with each business. Customers without certificates didn't understand why they didn't qualify for Bernal Bucks benefits.

The duo is hoping the third time will be the charm and this card-based program will succeed where sticker and gift certificate-based ones failed.

Interestingly, Bernal Bucks aren't the Bay Area's only local hyper-local currency. Last year, the Coastal Marin Fund started issuing its own $3 brass coins in the hopes they would fall into wide use in ten small, coastal communities around West Marin. The $3 coins cost $1 to make, with the rest of proceeds going to local non-profits.