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Taste Test

As the hospitality industry struggles in the midst of pandemic restrictions, Ithaca’s restaurants—along with the Farmers Market, local wineries, and more—have had to get creative

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The son of two Cornellians, Gregar Brous has been in the food business in Ithaca for more than four decades—ever since he was an Ithaca College undergrad working part time as a bagel baker. In 1980 he bought Collegetown Bagels (CTB)—then just four years old—and ultimately expanded his family’s local food empire to include multiple locations of that beloved eatery as well as its sister establishment, Ithaca Bakery; Agava, a popular East Hill restaurant that serves Southwest-inspired cuisine; and Rulloff’s, the historic bistro and bar that shared a building with the original CTB on College Avenue.

Like restaurateurs everywhere, Brous has endured the industry’s ups and downs, somewhat insulated from the vicissitudes of the wider economy by Ithaca’s status as a college town with a reliable supply of customers—students, faculty, staff, and a regular influx of campus visitors and tourists. But nothing could have prepared him for last March, when COVID-19 forced both Cornell and IC to shift to online instruction, events small and large—including Commencement at both schools—were canceled or postponed, and the bottom fell out of the Ithaca economy. “I’ve never seen anything like it, that’s for sure,” says Brous, whose management team includes his Hotelie daughter, Lindsey Brous ’12. “I hope we never see anything like this again in my lifetime.”

Within days, four months’ worth of catering orders vanished. Agava and Rulloff’s closed, as did a CTB location in a local fitness center. The company’s wholesale business—supplying bread, bagels, and pastry to dining halls and restaurants—dropped 90 percent. Sales to grocery stores picked up as more people ate at home, but it came nowhere near to offsetting the other losses. All told across his outlets, Brous had to let go of more than 300 workers. “I was laying off thirty-year employees who were in tears,” he recalls. “It was the most heartbreaking time of our whole existence. And this all happened in two weeks’ time.”

As the COVID pandemic has wreaked economic havoc across the nation and the world, restaurants—along with other sectors of the hospitality industry—have been particularly hard hit, as health and safety regulations have banned or heavily limited in-person dining. And—as Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 has told national media outlets from the New York Times to Fox News in an ongoing effort to appeal for federal aid to municipalities—college towns are facing distinct challenges. As student populations emptied out, businesses lost their customer base and sales tax revenue plummeted—a grievous blow for communities where much of the property is tax exempt, as is more than half the land in the City of Ithaca. “The health of our economy depends on the University, and when the students left it tripled our unemployment rate, from about 3 percent to 10 percent,” says Myrick. “A lot of our restaurants have closed, some for good. Hotels, restaurants, and stores have been forced to lay off staff and are trying to adjust to what might be the new reality for quite a while.”

CLOSED KITCHENS

Among the permanent casualties of the COVID era: John Thomas Steakhouse, a high-end restaurant on South Hill that has hosted many a graduation dinner; the Carriage House Café, a popular brunch spot on Stewart Avenue; the downtown outpost of Ithaca Coffee Company (located next to CAM’s offices and, to its staffers, a beloved source of caffeine); and Ten Forward, a “Star Trek”-themed vegan café on the Commons. Rulloff’s, already slated for closure due to the summertime demolition of its building, shuttered months earlier than expected and never had a last hurrah. (As Brous notes, its iconic bar and other fixtures were salvaged and are for sale.) “The service industry in Ithaca is unique,” says Mark Anbinder ’89, founder of the news site 14850.com, whose dining section is a go-to source for updates and insight on the local food scene, which he also discusses on a regular radio segment on WVBR. “The economy is enormously geared nine months a year to academia and the other three months a year to tourism.”

But as he and others in the Ithaca food world point out, despite the challenges there have been bright spots, as local restaurateurs have reimagined their businesses and come up with novel ways to generate revenue while complying with the state’s ever-shifting safety regulations. And the City of Ithaca has tried to help—loosening parking rules, expediting permits for al fresco dining, and, most prominently, following the example of other cities by closing a block of Aurora Street to vehicular traffic to create a pedestrian-only “restaurant row.” Says Anbinder: “It’s been good to see a lot of creative, entrepreneurial people in this town trying new things—ways to keep their staff employed, keep their customers happy, keep their kitchens active, and keep making delicious things.”

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The new pedestrian-friendly “restaurant row” on Aurora Steet.Casey Martin

When Agava (located in the building that some Cornellians remember as the Mexican restaurant Coyote Loco) reopened in late spring, it started with online, to-go ordering one day per week; as New York State strictures loosened, it expanded service and added picnic tables, an on-site food truck, limited indoor dining with tables separated by plastic sheeting—even a couple of geodesic domes in the parking lot. Thanks to a change in state liquor regulations allowing to-go cocktails with the purchase of food, Agava was able to offer its popular craft margaritas and other libations for pick-up and delivery. “Having that option made a big difference,” Anbinder says of local eateries overall, “especially in an industry where so much of the profit margin is on beverages.” While Brous had originally planned to open the new Collegetown CTB store in Sheldon Court on June 1 (replacing the one across the street, housed in the same now-demolished building as Rulloff’s), COVID caused a ten-week construction delay. So in the meantime, a CTB food truck took up residence outside the Schwartz Center, serving sandwiches, salads, smoothies, coffee drinks, and more. “We wanted to have some presence on College Avenue for the summer,” says Brous. “That’s been fun.”

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The CTB food truck that took up residence outside the Schwartz Center this summer.Casey Martin

At the Heights Restaurant—a fine dining establishment popular with University faculty and visiting parents that has operated in the Community Corners shopping plaza in Cayuga Heights since 1995—COVID meant a dramatic departure from its long-established business. Practically overnight, what had been a lively scene for business dinners, craft cocktails, meals at the bar, and romantic evenings out had to shut down. “Probably the hardest day of my life was to lay off everybody,” says owner James Larounis, an alum of the renowned Culinary Institute of America. “We were twenty-five years in business. But you have to think outside the box and reinvent. Even though the dining room closed, we continued operation.”

With in-person dining banned by the state, Larounis quickly pivoted to takeout, working with his chef to devise a curbside menu that eventually grew to include a variety of offerings like truffled frites, a grilled octopus gyro, steak and bleu cheese salad, wild mushroom pizza, and more. They offered a daily special “pour-over cocktail,” packaged in takeout containers—by the glass or the quart—for customers to serve over ice at home. Diners would pay via credit card over the phone, never entering the restaurant or even getting out of their cars. “For about three weeks, it was just myself, my chef, and my wife and kids; then we realized we needed more help,” says Larounis, who was able to rehire some staff. “It’s an amazing thing after twenty-five years to have to reinvent yourself as a curbside takeout restaurant. Takeout was not a big part of our landscape and now it’s huge, and that’s thanks to the community. It’s unbelievable. It’s really unreal.”

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Curbside pick-up at the Heights Restaurant.Casey Martin

Across town at Ithaca Beer Company, founder Dan Mitchell ’00 and his wife, Mari Rutz Mitchell ’98, MS ’03, also had to reimagine their livelihood. In addition to brewing beer for consumption in bars and restaurants throughout the Northeast—a business that, Mari says, fell off 70 percent last spring compared to the previous year—they operate a brewpub on the property. That sit-down eatery transformed to all counter service and outdoor dining, allowing guests to bring their own blankets and lawn chairs and even putting some tables in a cornfield. Once the weather turns colder, she says, they plan to add heaters and use the property’s firepits, and they eventually aim to put some socially distanced seating in empty space in the brewery. “We’re really hoping to extend the ‘shoulder season’ outdoors as much as we can,” says Mari, who returned to the business after a three-year hiatus when the company had to furlough most of its workers. “I’m guessing that people will bundle up and be happy to sit outside longer into the fall.” Since canceled wholesale orders meant a surplus of the brewery’s Flower Power IPA, they’ve partnered with a local distillery to turn it into gin and bourbon, for which they hope to get approval from the State Liquor Authority. “We ran a test batch,” says Mari, whose staff this summer included son Bryce Mitchell ’23, “and it came out great.”

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New procedures at Ithaca Beer Company. Casey Martin

SAFETY MEASURES

In addition to pioneering ways to make a living during COVID, restaurants have had to adhere to a host of health and safety rules—and, just as importantly, make their customers feel secure that dining out or grabbing to-go meals won’t put them at risk for infection. At Ithaca Beer, hand sanitizer is liberally pumped from the company’s brown glass growlers, tables are set far apart on the multi-acre site, and plates and cutlery are all disposable. CTB’s provisions include banning refillable mugs, closing hot-and-cold food bars, and eliminating self-serve stations for flavoring coffee.

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Limited access to the building helps protect staff at Wings Over Ithaca. Casey Martin

One of CTB’s Collegetown neighbors, the popular chicken joint Wings Over Ithaca, was among the first restaurants in town to close its dining room in the pandemic’s early days, says co-owner and “chief wing officer” Dan Leyva ’14. The Dryden Road restaurant quickly implemented a variety of safety procedures, including establishing zones within the kitchen to allow for social distancing and blocking off the front entrance with tables so takeout customers and delivery drivers couldn’t venture fully into the building. Orders were accepted online or via phone—even customers who showed up in person were asked to step outside and call—and payment was electronic only, due to concerns about an inability to sanitize cash. “We want our crew to be safe,” says Leyva, who notes that the eatery saw a predictable drop in late-night orders due to the student exodus but an uptick in family-sized meals. “And if our crew is safe, we can ensure that everything that comes in and out of the restaurant is also safe.”

At the Heights—which is still doing a brisk curbside business but has resumed sit-down dining, indoors and on the back patio—gloved staffers pre-portion silverware in plastic wrap; individual dinner rolls are served rather than sliced bread; and the ice scoop behind the bar is sanitized between each use. Instead of a leather folder, the check is presented on a plastic tray, which is then put through the dishwasher; rather than handing over a credit card, patrons can write down the number. At the end of the meal, each diner gets a parting gift: a sanitizing towelette. “They’re little things we put into place, to do the right thing and show we take this seriously,” says Larounis. “We went above and beyond the state guidelines—and so far, the comments we’ve gotten are fantastic.”

MARKET WATCH

 

In Cornell’s hometown, summer wouldn’t feel right without the Ithaca Farmers Market—the immensely popular hub for local produce, crafts, and creative takeout food situated on Cayuga Inlet. But as COVID shut down many enterprises—including the market’s indoor winter incarnation—its ability to run this season was in doubt. Given its reputation as a place so crowded that parking is often a nightmare—and sometimes even walking around inside the pavilion is a challenge—some in the community feared it would present too great a risk. So the market, a vendor-run cooperative, developed a comprehensive safety plan. “We were trying to stay open as an access point for fresh local food, especially when grocery stores were experiencing shortages,” says Laura Gallup, the organization’s marketing and events coordinator. “As New York State has opened up slowly, so have we.”

When the market first opened for the season in its outdoor location, known as Steamboat Landing, only half of the fifty vendor booths were allowed to be filled—and since arts and crafts didn’t qualify as essential businesses under COVID rules, artisans couldn’t attend. Shoppers were limited to one person per household, and all prepared foods had to be taken to go; the popular purveyor of breakfast burritos, for instance, sold them frozen instead of ready to eat. Says Gallup: “We wanted people to get in, get their shopping done, and get out.” As restrictions have eased, all vendors have been allowed to return, and eating is allowed (though only while seated at designated picnic tables). But face coverings are still required, lines must be socially distanced, customers aren’t allowed to touch the wares prior to purchase, and capacity is limited, sometimes requiring patrons to queue up and wait to enter. “We still want people to come down and have a good time, but we’ve definitely had to manage expectations of what it’s going to be like and what we can accommodate, because we don’t want to get shut down,” says Gallup. “We want to follow the rules and make sure everything is safe for our customers and vendors.”

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The Ithaca Farmers Market has instituted strict rules for health and safety.Casey Martin

Still, it’s hardly a normal summer. The Tuesday markets downtown in DeWitt Park—which drew a steady stream of office workers, many of whom are now operating remotely—have been canceled, as have the Thursday evening ones at Steamboat Landing. And the roughly three dozen private events that were scheduled to be held at the market, including numerous weddings, have all been canceled or postponed. “A huge chunk of our revenue has gotten deleted, basically,” says Gallup. But a fundraising campaign to help offset the losses has raised more than $20,000—and, she says, many vendors have leveraged creative ways to increase sales, like opening online stores, offering local pick-up, or teaming up to sell boxes of products. “This terrible thing is happening, but it has definitely forced people to adapt,” she says. “It has pushed vendors to do things that might have been on their ‘maybe someday’ list. So it has made local food and agricultural products more accessible than ever, which is one of our main goals.”

TOURISM DOWN—AND UP

Among the blows to Ithaca’s hospitality sector, perhaps no single loss has been more sharply felt than the postponement of graduation ceremonies for Cornell’s Class of 2020. “When I try to help people understand what Commencement weekend means to our destination, I tell them it’s similar to Black Friday in retail,” says Peggy Coleman, vice president of tourism and community relations at the Ithaca/Tompkins County Convention & Visitors Bureau. Traditionally held on Memorial Day weekend, Commencement 2020 will instead be celebrated in early June 2021 as part of a special Reunion event for young alumni. And that postponement has cost the region dearly: by the end of May, Coleman says, local hotels had seen a $15 million revenue drop in the first five months of the year compared to 2019, with much of that loss related to the lack of graduation ceremonies at both Cornell and IC, which normally draw thousands of friends and family. “We are a college town, and we are thrilled to be one,” she says. “But it has had an impact.” Counting restaurants, retail shops, and other business, she says, the anecdotal tally of losses due to canceled events, campus shutdowns, and a dearth of leisure and business travel for that same period range from $30 million to $50 million.

At the Ithaca Tompkins International Airport—which unveiled an expanded and renovated terminal in January—the drop in traveler numbers has also been dramatic. According to airport manager Mike Hall ’68, traffic in April was down more than 90 percent compared to the previous year, and the federal Department of Transportation gave United Airlines (one of three carriers that service the airport, along with American and Delta) permission to temporarily suspend its Ithaca flights. But, Hall says, traffic has been steadily increasing to the point where some flights have been full, and airport services like rental cars and the new café remain open. “It was a very strong recovery a month ago,” Hall said in late July. “Right now I think everybody is watching with bated breath how the infection rate plays out in various parts of the country that have become hot spots.” Travelers originating from states on New York’s quarantine list are required to file a health declaration when they arrive, and passengers are expected to wear masks “curbside to curbside” throughout their trip, except when eating or drinking. “We’ve had good compliance,” Hall says. “I think people are taking this quite seriously, as they should be.”

According to Coleman, local tourism has been steadily increasing throughout the summer, with some hotels—which are operating at limited capacity to allow for COVID precautions, like keeping rooms empty between guests—nearly full over the Fourth of July weekend. As she explains, the region’s attributes—including a low infection rate and a wealth of recreational options like hiking and boating—are particularly attractive to visitors within driving distance throughout the Northeast. “There’s such pent-up demand,” she says. “People want to travel. They want to get back here because they love it, they feel safe here, and there’s so much opportunity for outdoor activity. As soon as the governor announced New York Forward [the state’s reopening plan] we saw an immediate uptick in our chats, e-mails, phone calls, and travel guide requests from people looking to come.”

Similarly, area wineries have seen a boost in visitors, says Christina Roberts, vice president of brand development at Finger Lakes Wine Country, an industry trade group. “Once the tasting rooms opened back up in June, we’ve seen steady traffic,” Roberts says. “A lot of it is people from around the region, and I think that’s what we’re going to be seeing through the end of the year. This area lends itself well to what people are looking for in a vacation destination in 2020—wide open spaces, those rural escapes. Finger Lakes wine country checks all the boxes.”

WINERIES ADAPT

When the state shut down last spring, wineries were considered essential businesses as part of the agricultural sector, so they were allowed to keep producing—but their tasting rooms, a key source of revenue and tourist traffic, had to close. That forced wineries in the Finger Lakes and elsewhere to get creative, with many expanding their social media presence and putting a bigger emphasis on online sales. “We’ve never seen things shift like this in so short a time,” says Liz Myer Stamp ’85, a partner at the family-owned Lakewood Vineyard, located in Watkins Glen at the southern end of Seneca Lake. “The big word is ‘pivot.’ We’re all pivoting.”

Lakewood launched “Cook + Cork,” a “Chopped”-style competition among the staff that it ran on Facebook; it also teamed up with local restaurants to offer wine pairings with takeout orders. Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery—one of the early pioneers of viticulture and oenology in the Finger Lakes—came up with “Staff Stories,” a feature sent to its e-mail list in which employees talked about their favorite dishes, at-home activities, and wines, which were then discounted for several days. “We did a ton of online specials and shipped out a lot of wine around the country,” says Meaghan Frank ’11, MPS ’16, vice president of the winery, located in the Village of Hammondsport on Keuka Lake. “We were lucky in that we were able to keep the staff whole.”

Laura Winter Falk ’87, PhD ’97, is a nutritionist and sommelier who runs Experience the Finger Lakes, an Ithaca-based firm that takes guests on guided winery tours and tastings, among other activities. When that business dried up due to the closures, she tried her hand at virtual offerings—shipping clients the wine and paired foods in advance and then conducting events via Zoom. One tour, dubbed “Three Lakes,” highlights one wine each from Cayuga, Seneca, and Keuka (a Riesling, a Chardonnay, and a Cabernet Franc) along with cheeses from Lively Run, an Ithaca-area producer. The events—including two sold-out sessions offered as part of Cornell’s 2020 virtual Reunion—were a hit. “This is never going away, because it has proved to be so popular,” says Falk. “We’re getting requests for it all the time now.”

Once the tasting rooms reopened in June, the wineries had to adapt to a host of new COVID safety regulations. Whereas visitors could previously drop in and crowd around the bar, now tastings must be seated (with masks worn at all other times), a food item must be provided, communal “spit buckets” have been eliminated, and advance reservations are preferred. At Dr. Konstantin Frank, the winery is doing a progressive tasting at five stations throughout the property—three outside, two spaced out in the main tasting room. Each patron receives a commemorative glass that they use at each station and then take home, along with a branded pen and tasting sheet. “We had to come up with a system that was safe for our guests and for our staff, and I think this satisfies that,” says Frank, noting that while overall numbers are down, the average amount that each visitor spends on wine purchases is up.

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While winery tourism has resumed, tasters must be seated and food must be provided.Provided

At Lakewood, tastings are spread throughout the building, but social distancing means that capacity has taken a hit. “In a space that we would normally have six people tasting who maybe didn’t arrive together, we now have two,” says Stamp—who, like Frank, tapped expertise from CALS on best practices for safe operation. “Our staff are doing three or four times as many tastings a day as they would normally do, to accommodate the guests; in June, we saw less than half the usual number and we were all exhausted. But we’re making it work, and people have been really cooperative and understanding. We try to make it a fun experience. We don’t want to whine about the regulations—we just say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ ”

When Falk was able to reactivate her in-person touring business, she shifted to a more bespoke experience to allow for social distancing, taking six guests in vans that would normally hold fourteen, at a fee of about $200 per person. “Because everything is reservation booking, we can turn guests away if they’re not within the restrictions that the governor has put in place,” she says, noting that a party from Ohio had to provide restaurant receipts to prove they’d been in New York long enough to join a tour. “We’re lucky in that we can have complete control over the process, so we know that we’re abiding by the regulations to keep people safe.”


Related stories from previous issues

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Wings Over Ithaca

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Ithaca Airport

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