Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Edito

Collegetown Bagels was empty on March 20 after dine-in operations were suspended.

March 25, 2020

Collegetown Bagels Opens ‘Pay What You Can’ Community Kitchen to Provide Food During COVID-19 Pandemic

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Normally a bustling business filled with energy and laughter, the storefront of local staple Collegetown Bagels is now eerily quiet, shuttered as a result of a state mandate ordering all restaurants to switch to takeout-only service.

But despite the shock of suddenly lost customers, CTB has taken action in a time of crisis, partnering with national organization World Central Kitchen to open a community kitchen at its 301 E. State Street downtown location “in an effort to keep the vulnerable members of our community well-fed,” according to a press release.

“We have a lot of capacity to produce. Right now, we don’t have the demand. So if we’re able to give that food away to people who need it, that’s what we want to do,” Gregar Brous, CTB owner, told The Sun. “If we have food, I’d rather give it to people than see it rot.”

The community kitchen — which opened on Monday — is operating on a “pay what you can” basis, with customers able to pick up to two items per day from a selection of pre-packaged soups, salads, sandwiches and entrees. People can also “pay it forward,” either in person or online, to help provide meals for those who need them.

“My feeling is that in a very short amount of time, the people that need food, and don’t have it or don’t have money to access it, is going to grow exponentially and fast,” Brous said. “We need to figure out ways as a community to mobilize and to work together to set up systems of how to get food to people in the greatest time of need.”

In 2017, 13.4 percent of people and 17.2 percent of children in Tompkins County were food insecure, according to nonprofit Feeding America — a situation almost certainly to be exasperated as unemployment dramatically spikes.

In addition to picking up food inside the store, Brous said that at 4 p.m. each day, CTB brings down food from its other locations and puts it outside on tables for people to grab and go. Furthermore, everything is 10% off for hospitality industry members.

Brous said that the decision to open a community kitchen was based on “the care and love we have for our local community.”

“They’ve kept us in business for all these years, and we would like to give back in any way that we possibly can,” Brous said. “Clearly this is going to be an extremely not just stressful, but needy time for a lot of people.”

Brous emphasized that forging relationships between nonprofits and for-profits is “ultimately going to be very key in terms of being able to maintain the capacity to feed people” — stressing that, while businesses know how to produce, charities are best equipped to distribute to the most vulnerable.

Thus, CTB reached out to World Central Kitchen, a non-profit based in Washington D.C. that aims to address poverty and hunger around the world. The organization worked in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria and California after its wildfires.

As a community partner, CTB now receives best practices and networking support from the organization.

“Our fate as a nation depends on how we feed our most vulnerable citizens through this crisis,” wrote World Central Kitchen founder José Andrés in an op-ed for The New York Times on Sunday. “The coronavirus pandemic threatens to create both a public health and economic catastrophe. But we cannot afford to ignore the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding out of sight.”

Brous said that he’s also working with “other means of people that give things away.” For example, he provided labor and support to the Food Bank of the Southern Tier to set up a hub — which opened on Tuesday — that is distributing food directly to households for people who can’t leave their homes.

“The sustainability of that will be in part based on what kind of support we get to do that. We can’t go on forever, but we’re going to go on for as long as we can,” Brous said. “It seems like our practices of yesterday are old news, and our practices of tomorrow, we haven’t even thought about yet.”

Madeline Rosenberg ’23 contributed reporting.