January 12, 2012

The Palms, a Collegetown Fixture Since 1941, Will Close Next Month

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The Royal Palm Tavern, one of the most venerated and well-known bars in Collegetown, is set to close on Feb. 29 after almost 71 years in business. The family-owned bar is no longer financially sustainable, largely because of changes in student drinking habits, according to Joe Leonardo, who has owned the bar since he and his brothers took it over from his father and uncle in the early 1980s.

Leonardo said students spend much less time in Collegetown bars now than they did 10 years ago. Although bars are packed late on weekend nights, those crowds are not enough to support the business for the rest of the week, he said.

“I don’t know if you’ve heard of ‘Palms o’clock,’ but that’s a business killer right there,” Leonardo said, referring to the phrase students use for the half hour, just before closing, in which young people flock to the Royal Palm. “It’s really tough to make a living on less than three hours a week.”

The Royal Palm, which is commonly known as the Palms, is the third bar in Collegetown to close in less than a year. Dino’s and Johnny O’s both shuttered their doors last summer. Dino’s closed, its management said, because it was unable to renew its lease. Johnny O’s management did not respond to requests for comment last summer, but Leonardo said on Thursday that Johnny O’s faced the same sort of financial difficulties as the Palms did.

The Palms opened in 1941 and was originally owned by Leonardo’s father and uncle. The bar built a fond following among students, who would often return to the Palms again as alumni.

Groups of alumni have already begun organizing trips to Ithaca to visit the bar once more before it closes.

“The Palms has been the Palms for as long as people can remember,” said Chris Mejia ’11, who is one of the alumni planning to return to Ithaca before Feb. 29. “Some of my fondest memories were at the Royal Palm. It’s the place where we celebrated in the good times and drowned our sorrows in the bad.”

But recent graduates are not the only alumni who have memories of the Palms, which has served Cornellians for nearly half the University’s existence.

“Generations of Cornellians have memories of the Palms,” said Corey Earle ’07, an alumni affairs officer and unofficial University historian, “but now it joins other venerable student hangouts of yesteryear like Johnny’s and Zinck’s.”

Leonardo, who plans to move to Florida and escape Ithaca’s winters after the Palms closes, said it is sad to close a business with such history.

The last day “is going to be tough,” he said. “But it’s just not feasible any more.”

The business ran into serious problems over the last decade.

“Less than 10 years ago, kids would come out and start drinking after class … and we’d be busy all afternoon,” he said. “But drinking habits have changed.”

Leonardo said he thinks text messaging is largely responsible for the change in behavior. With texting, students can communicate and coordinate times and places to meet in ways they could not 10 years ago. While many students used to gather in Collegetown bars after class to see friends or plan their evenings, such face-to-face meeting places are no longer necessary.

Changes to Cornell’s homecoming also hurt the Palms’ business, Leonardo said. The University’s football game, which is traditionally a boon to bars and restaurants in Collegetown, was scheduled for the evening in 2011 — a departure from its normal early afternoon kickoff. With the later game and more events on campus, students and alumni spent less time in the Palms than they had in past years, Leonardo said.

“We did about 10 percent of the business that we did last year,” he said.

Still, the bar’s imminent closure came as a surprise to many of its regulars, and even its employees.

“Feb. 29 will be a sad, sad day,” said Colleen Brill ’12, a Palms employee.

Original Author: Michael Linhorst