Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Collegetown Bagels and other Ithaca staples risk running out of business as a take-out only policy is enacted. Two Cornell Alumni have started a fundraiser to support them.

March 23, 2020

Hotel School Alumni Pair Launch Fundraising Campaign as COVID-19 Rattles Ithaca Restaurants

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Marco Levy ’19 and Rob Karp ’19 were scrolling through Facebook on Saturday when a brutal reality appeared on their screens: A Hotel School alumnus had posted that The State Diner closed until further notice. The downtown and Collegetown restaurants they called home for four years were suffering, as a state executive order restricts them to takeout-only service.

But the two School of Hotel Administration alumni quickly turned despair into action.

As the COVID-19 outbreak has transformed Ithaca into what George Papachryssanthou — co-owner of Thompson and Bleecker, Chatty Cathy Cafe and Ithaca Wine and Spirits — called a “ghost town,” Levy and Karp launched a GoFundMe fundraising campaign to help keep Collegetown restaurants afloat.

Alongside other local initiatives to relieve business, the crowdsourcing campaign reached $1,600 in donations on Monday night, out of a $5,000 starting goal.

“You cannot sustain a non-takeout business with just takeout. We just want to help,” Karp said. “If we get this into the right people’s hands, we can make a bigger impact. We love Cornell, and Collegetown was a really important place for us that we lived in junior and senior year.”

Levy and Karp said they are using the Collegetown Small Business Alliance and the Tompkins County Chamber of Commerce as resources, helping them to determine the most effective way to distribute the donations within the restaurant community. Many eateries have forced their staffers to file for unemployment as takeout-only service has cut front-of-house staff, from servers to hosts.

Gregar Brous, owner of student staples Collegetown Bagels and Ithaca Bakery, said that in just 10 days, “the business is gone.”

Although many of his eateries remain open under reduced hours, about a quarter of Collegetown businesses have closed indefinitely, according to March 23 data from Marty Johnson, co-founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance.

Beyond circulating the fundraiser over social media, Levy and Karp are seeking support from Cornell Hotel School alumni networks, looking to those who care about Collegetown — from Ithaca locals to recent graduates and industry leaders like Shake Shack’s Randy Garutti.

But Collegetown and downtown Ithaca businesses need the economic relief now, and it can’t just come from locals and crowdsourcing fundraisers, Papachryssanthou told The Sun.

“The devastation to business — ours included — is unheard of,” Brous said. “We’ve never experienced anything like this. It’s just all-encompassing.”

Brous is operating curbside pick-up, along with takeout and delivery, at five of the CTB and Ithaca Bakery locations, but he closed his other restaurants, Agava and Ruloff’s. The remaining “miniscule” business levels have come at a harsh price for employees: He has laid off a significant portion of his staff as business plummets.

What’s left are emptier storefronts, as Brous said he moved half the furniture at his still-operating locations to a warehouse, while the rest remains pushed to the side, barring customers from eat-in dining.

Other local restaurant owners said they are working to maintain the salaries of full-time employees for as long as possible, even as most of the Collegetown customer base has fled Ithaca. Papachryssanthou said the continued takeout business from local diners has allowed him to keep providing these paychecks.

“People in this community are exceptional and they’ve supported many families,” Papachryssanthou said. “That’s why we’re open, and that’s why we continue to fight and we encourage people, as long as they can, to eat out at their favorite restaurant as much as financially possible.”

Both Brous and Papachryssanthou had not yet heard about Levy and Karp’s fundraising campaign, but said they appreciated their efforts — along with other local initiatives, which include gift card purchasing and a virtual tip jar for Ithaca service workers.

But Papachryssanthou said he viewed purchasing gift cards from local eateries as a temporary solution, despite the “amazing” community support. He called for economic relief from the government, calling the lack of larger-scale mobilization “beyond frustrating.”

“We have what seems to be hundreds of alliances, organizations, local, state political authorities,” he said, “and the only two people who have come up with a creative way to help support Collegetown businesses are two Cornell alumni who have created a GoFundMe page?”

As Levy and Karp circulate their fundraising campaign, the two alumni said they hope anyone who has from $10 to $1 million will contribute, as the coronavirus outbreak threatens to cause a local and national industry collapse.

“We need the Cornell community’s help and we need the Ithaca community’s help,” Karp said. “We need the alumni to step in and make sure there’s something when school starts again in August.”