March 26, 2014

Collegetown Bagels is Ithaca Born and Bread

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Correction appended

It’s a Saturday morning like every other at Collegetown Bagels:  A steady crowd of students navigate around colorful displays of speciality foods and stocked coolers to pick up a cup of Love Buzz to go. Crates of fresh bread are brought in from Ithaca Bakery – airy and voluminous ciabatta, dark and dense pumpernickel, small loaves of sourdough just waiting to be hollowed out and filled with steaming soup; and workers behind the counter in CTB baseball caps move in a flurry to keep up with the stream orders.  For anyone connected with Cornell in the past 30 years, the scene is a familiar one.  Known for its quality food, quirky atmosphere and central location, CTB has become an integral part of the the off campus experience for students, professors, parents, townies and alums alike.  However, there’s something beyond the colorful chalkboard and inventive sandwich names that keeps generations coming back to CTB.  I sat down with two of the owners of CTB, Mimi Mehaffey and Gregar Brous, and discovered that CTB is so much more than a sandwich shop on the corner; it’s a community-wide family focused on local engagement.

With its emphasis on community engagement and family feel, CTB serves up more than speciality sandwiches and coffees to-go, but also philosophy we can all learn from.

I’d like to first start with the humble beginnings of this little bagel shop.  The idea for CTB came from three guys from Long Island who believed that a bagel shop would do well in Ithaca.  After only a year, the trio sold the shop to the owner of Rulloff’s.  Brous, an Ithaca College student and original townie, worked at Rulloff’s at the time.  Upon graduation, he bought CTB with the support of his parents and brother, who are still owners of CTB today.  Mehaffey, a manager at Rulloff’s and by default a manager at CTB as well, became full time manager at CTB.  Brous and Mehaffey ran the original shop from the present-day Bear Necessities location and served the basics:  only bagels and cream cheese – tunafish was a monumental feat at the time.

CTB took on a more recognizable appearance to today’s trademark storefront after purchasing Oliver’s Deli and moving into their current, iconic corner location.  The expansion tripled the menu and staff of this once small shop overnight.  Today, with three different CTB locations and two Ithaca Bakery locations, acquired in 1989, the company employs over 300 members in the community.  Mehaffey and Brous maintain that their staff is central to the success of CTB:  “Our staff is why people come back.  They enjoy what they do and the customers that they are waiting on, and the customers have loyalty in return,” Mehaffey said.

Mehaffey ensures that the staff is purposively representative of the greater Ithaca community.  With students from Tompkins Cortland Community College, Cornell, Wells College and Ithaca College, just to name a few, and a special effort to hire high school students for their inaugural experience in the work force, as well as the employees who have been working for decades at the company, the staff of CTB is a true cross section of the Ithaca community.  “They have become like family to us and we have become like family to them, and our customers are an extension of that family” explains Mehaffey.

Not only does CTB emphasize a sense of community through its staff, but also through its ingredients.  Brous says he is constantly searching for farmers and suppliers within the community and a way to connect the livelihoods of these local neighbors with their own.  “It’s a huge piece of who we are, our connection to the community and our belief in sustainability and what we have to do to keep this earth here for our children and generations after us.”  Whether it’s locally-sourced meat or using nearby farmers for the production of their newest “ancient grains” bread line, Brous and Mehaffey are passionate about the quality of their ingredients and the impact they have on the local community.

The staff and ingredients combine to create some of the most locally-conscious food around.  The values of community and family around which CTB centers around are  merged in bright colors and block letters on the renowned chalkboard:  Names like The Steamin’ Treeman, Taughannock and Stewart Parker are clearly representative of the community of Ithaca.  Brous says that “local” was the first big sandwich theme.  The sandwich names, many of which are created by Brous, also represent the family aspect of CTB:  The Lindsey, Viva Chelsea and Miles Stone are named after their children; Sweet Rachel and Jonah’s Jive after their niece and nephew; the Javi after the family dog.  Fourteen-year staff member Chris Buck has his own sandwich, The Big Buck, displayed on the board.  Customers, too, can create their own concoction and have the opportunity for it to be sold as a special or added permanently to the menu.

For the past 35 years, CTB has succeeded in integrating a local feel that resonates with people from all walks of life and from all parts of the world.  In a place as diverse and quirky as Ithaca, it’s rare that a common denominator exists and has the ability to connect such a wide breadth of people, interests and tastes across generations.  In Ithaca, CTB serves as that common denominator.  With its emphasis on community engagement and family feel, CTB serves up more than speciality sandwiches and coffees to-go, but also philosophy we can all learn from.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly misspelled Gregar Brous’ last name as “Braus.” In addition, the article previously said Collegetown Bagels has hired students from “Tompkins’ County Community College,” when in fact the institution is known as the Tompkins Cortland Community College.