The owner of Shortstop Deli was close to shutting the 24-hour store’s doors for good.
He looked into bankruptcy options, laid off employees and — despite working nonstop 15-hour days since March — has been making 60 percent less revenue than normal. But Chuck Dong is one of the lucky ones: The downtown joint famous for its Hot Truck subs has stayed open, and is poised to survive the pandemic.
“We were at a breaking point,” said Dong, who has owned Shortstop since 2015 and has worked at the downtown store for more than 28 years. “I had a closure date in mind. I was looking at the options of bankruptcy. It was a very sad and dark time.”
Shortstop’s struggles are part of a larger pattern of college town economies on the brink. Though Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 has pleaded for a stronger federal response, businesses in small cities powered by universities — like Ithaca’s Purity Ice Cream — are facing uphill battles to stay open.
Since 1978, students and locals have relied on Shortstop for a sandwich (with a nine-cent soft drink), cup of coffee or chocolate chip cookie whether it was Christmas Day, the middle of a snowstorm or 3 o’clock in the morning. But the coronavirus finally brought an end to what for Dong was a point of pride: being open every hour of every day. After closing on weekends in March, Shortstop is now open from 6 a.m. until 2 a.m., six days a week. Dong plans to reopen on Sundays soon, but isn’t sure when — or if — he’ll go back to 24/7.
“That first weekend I closed, I sat in this building extremely emotional,” Dong said. “It was the end of a 40-year tradition to be open every single day, every single hour. I can’t put into words the impact it has emotionally. Economically, though, it made sense.”
Every local business has felt the pandemic’s impact. But some go-to spots are gone for good.
Sweet Melissa’s, the soft-serve ice cream location that operates out of the side of Shortstop Deli, has been open for around five hours per day, but the company’s hard ice cream store in Press Bay Alley will close permanently, the company announced on June 26.
Other permanent closures include John Thomas Steakhouse, Ithaca Coffee Company’s downtown location and the Star Trek-themed vegan eatery Ten Forward Cafe.
Students’ anticipated return gives businesses sense of optimism
Because it also offers groceries and convenience store snacks, Shortstop is an essential business and remained open when much of the city shut down in March. But the impact of the rapid turn to a new normal — plus the mass exodus of most of the city’s 30,000 or so college students — had a devastating effect on business. Cornell accounts for around 20 percent of Tompkins County’s economic activity.
The county’s unemployment rate jumped from 3.5 percent pre-pandemic to north of 10 percent in April and May. Though forced to make layoffs in March, Dong said he’s been able to bring back all of his employees.
“Shortstop Deli in particular has such a great relationship with the two colleges. It’s a tremendous part of our success,” Dong said. “It’s this combination of our local community with the two colleges. So Cornell and I.C. left, and then five days later, the state shut down. So for a lot of us there was just no transition time, no planning, and that sent us into a really tough spiral.”
Support from locals also allowed Dong to help the community while simultaneously keeping business afloat. A partnership with community organizations allowed customers to buy Shortstop gift cards from Dong, which were donated to people in need.
“A way to support us was you would buy a gift card from me or Shortstop Deli; I get the financial benefit of that,” said Dong, who added that the program raised around $9,000. “And then I re-disperse those gift cards to the charities, and they give them to families in need.”
Md Jalil, the owner of Ithaca Halal Meat and Grocery, said “business will be fine again” when campuses reopen — not so much due to student support but because of groups of people like postdocs and visitors.
Jalil is the only person working at his store, and allows only one customer at a time, requiring shoppers to stay outside while he brings them their meat and other items. Since customers can’t find halal items at larger supermarkets, Jalil said, he has a smaller, more local customer base, and the pandemic hasn’t hit him as hard as some other business owners. He said he’s also benefited from a flexible landlord, who hasn’t charged him rent since March.
Returning Cornellians and Ithaca College students promise to revitalize business at Ithaca restaurants and stores. Shortstop stands to benefit from its corporate partnership with Cornell Athletics, event catering and group orders in addition to walk-up sales.
“Business with Cornell is a big part of our overall portfolio. For the city, it’s undeniable, I mean, the more people the better,” Dong said. “Just like any other community during this pandemic, revenue is just not there. And it affects municipalities hard.”
With restaurants and stores increasingly free to resume operations under phase four of New York’s reopening plan, businesses’ efforts to control costs, adhere to regulations and remain sustainable mean shorter hours and limited offerings are likely to be the new normal.
Buffalo Street Books, for example, is now open for browsing from noon to 4 p.m., three days a week, and noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays, instead of their usual hours, which had the store open every weekday. The store, which recently brought some laid off employees back to work, is also requiring customers to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
Dong said that even with phased reopenings, businesses can’t go back to normal right away. In addition to figuring out how to resume operations, restaurants and stores have to make plans to keep tabs on ever-changing regulations, ensure customers are safe and protect staff mental health.
“COVID has had a tremendous trickle down effect,” Dong said. “Like our food chain supplies, we’re not able to get supplies, we’re not able to get ingredients. If we do, they’re triple [the] price.”
‘No other challenges … come close’
Myrick has repeatedly called on the federal government to inject cities like Ithaca with more aid to weather the storm brought by the pandemic, but without much success. Meanwhile, students’ return will mark what the city hopes will be more than a temporary reprieve.
Ithaca may need to cut its $70 million budget by $14 million and has furloughed a quarter of the city’s employees, Myrick said. The Common Council passed a resolution in June asking the state to allow Ithaca to cancel three months of rent.
Sad news. Along with Carriage House, Ten Forward Cafe, the downtown Ithaca Coffee.
It didn’t have to be this way. A normally functioning federal government would do as much to support people and small businesses in a pandemic as they’ve done for large corporations. https://t.co/QNoFUo6hrF
— Mayor Svante Myrick (@SvanteMyrick) June 30, 2020
As cases spike around the country and experts warn of a second wave, Tompkins County is in a relatively comfortable public health position, for now. As of Friday, the county was down to one active COVID-19 case, less than two months before tens of thousands of students are set to return.
But as uncertainty continues to swirl, these four taxing months are just the beginning of Ithaca’s economic trials.
“No other challenges I have faced in 30 years come close to the challenges of this pandemic,” Dong said. “Probably no other challenge for anyone has been this hard.”