An empty Plum Tree Restaurant on March 19, 2020. New York State ordered restaurants to cease dine-in operations on March 16.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

An empty Plum Tree Restaurant on March 19, 2020. New York State ordered restaurants to cease dine-in operations on March 16.

April 6, 2020

‘We Are Making No Money’: Collegetown Restaurants Struggle to Stay Open

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Souvlaki House was supposed to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Instead, the Collegetown Greek-Italian favorite is shutting down on Monday for more than two weeks for sanitization.

The restaurant’s business has dropped 85 to 90 percent, according to Souvlaki House owner Chris Rabavilas. This is the first time the eatery has shut down for safety-related reasons since its inception in 1970.

“We live in 2020, something like [this] comes around and it seems like we don’t know what to do,” Rabavilas said. “We were not ready.”

Souvlaki House is one of the more than 50 Collegetown businesses that are scrambling to stay afloat, as statewide regulations restrict them to takeout-only operations to reduce the coronavirus’ spread. While some Collegetown restaurants have reduced their hours and employees, others have already closed indefinitely.

Souvlaki House has so far laid off only a handful of staff and continues to pay its employees as much as possible. However, other Collegetown eateries have already cut paychecks, forcing their staff to file for unemployment benefits.

Collegetown Bagels has laid off almost 400 employees across its  five locations after Ithaca became a “ghost town,” said co-owner Gregar Brous.

“We’re asking people to come back to their jobs after this is over,” Brous said. “Their jobs are guaranteed back with the same benefits.”

In the meantime, Brous’ unemployed staff is filing for insurance benefits, and some CTB employees were stationed at some of its locations to help them navigate the process of signing up. New York State has waived the seven-day waiting period for receiving benefits for those out of work due to COVID-19 closures or quarantines.

Due to rapid changes in business and state regulations, Brous and the other three owners keep in touch throughout the day to assess how to move forward. He said they have already reduced store hours to “afford to have people staffing it.”

Brous said he thinks the five still-operating CTB and Ithaca Bakery locations will remain open for the next two weeks. Similarly, Karmjit Benipal, owner of Sangam Indian Cuisine, said his restaurant will stay open for the next month because of business from the fraction of remaining students.

“Everything was unexpected,” Benipal said. “There are no customers. Whoever comes is very fearful. I’m fearful for my employees when they take the credit cards and everything.”

Benipal, who is also a chef at the restaurant, said business has dwindled to a third of what it used to be, causing Sangam to cut back its operating hours.

Plummeting business also forced Benipal to lay off Sangam’s entire wait staff, except for the one employee who delivers takeout orders. The restaurant is still struggling to pay rent and insurance.

“If the situation stays the same, we can’t stay in business anymore,” Benipal said. “We are making no money.”

Rabavilas was especially anxious about the continued loss of business in the coming months: April and May have been, historically, the most profitable months for the eatery.

“It’s been a disaster, financially,” Rabavilas said. “It’s going to take us a long time to come out of this.”

Another family-run eatery, Carriage House Cafe, has laid off all of its employees, leaving its daily operations in the hands of three people. However, the owners have been reaching out to its former workers to help out during these uncertain times.

Carriage House Cafe on March 21, 2020, after dine-in operations stopped.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Carriage House Cafe on March 21, 2020, after dine-in operations stopped.

“We’ve been able to give some supplies that were needed,” said Aaron Chandler, co-owner of Carriage House Cafe.

The devastation to Collegetown restaurants arrives at a unique time for the Stewart Avenue staple: Its owners put the restaurant up for sale in February after more than 20 years of brunch and live music concerts. Now, the Chandler and Woodall families have lost most of their business as their main clientele — Cornell students — have vacated Ithaca, stymying plans to place their business in new hands.

To compensate for this loss, Carriage House Cafe has been trying to come up with new options. The eatery, known for dishing out the “best brunch in Ithaca,” now offers takeout dinner entrees that can be reheated.

“Either you change with what’s going on or you close,” Chandler said. “Those are your two options.”