When the pandemic brought an abrupt halt to campus life in March, the livelihoods of local restaurants in Collegetown — dependent on student traffic — were left hanging by a thread.
Several restaurants were forced to close in the following months, and the rest, including Cafe Pacific, a Japanese restaurant and bubble tea shop on Dryden Road, have felt the financial strain of reduced activity even as students came back on campus.
As rent debt added up and business slowed, Fumie Oda, owner of Cafe Pacific, began to consider shuttering the restaurant. Issues with her landlord over her lease compounded Oda’s problems.
“[The] landlord did not care about the pandemic situation and they pushed me on the rent. I technically do not have a lease anymore,” Oda told The Sun. “They want me to leave.”
Cafe Pacific seemed destined to close until Karen Perez ’19 stepped in. On Oct. 31, Perez began a GoFundMe with a goal of raising $12,000 — just enough to cover Oda’s rent and the 3 percent fee taken by the platform.
It took just two days for the fundraiser to reach its goal.
“Fumie has always been there for us, and is perhaps the only person out of all the other businesses in [Collegetown] that genuinely cares about her clientele,” Perez wrote on the GoFundMe.
By Nov. 25, Oda, sometimes known as “the bubble tea lady,” could count on over $21,000 in donations from over 450 donors, many of them current students and alumni.
The donations will not only help Oda cover her rent, but will also help her find legal representation to fight the loss of her lease.
High rent costs have persisted as an issue for restaurants, especially as the pandemic cuts into business. In June, the Ithaca Common Council passed a resolution requesting New York State authorization to cancel three months’ rent, but it is unclear if this was ever seriously considered by the state government.
The #SaveCollegetown fund, responsible for inspiring the Cafe Pacific GoFundMe, emerged as an unorthodox solution for businesses struggling to make rent earlier this year. Similar campaigns have already raised over $10,000 for struggling Collegetown businesses.
#SaveCollegetown was created by Helena Wu ’16 and Zichuan Zhou ’16, who had come back to visit Ithaca and found empty storefronts, quiet streets and nostalgia for the past.
Wu and Zhou wrote that preserving these restaurants is meant to “provide future Cornell students the chance to have their Collegetown memories, and give alumni a refuge to reminisce of the good ol’ days during future reunions,” according to their website.
Many of the Cafe Pacific’s fundraiser’s donors echoed Wu and Zhou’s words, expressing their support for Oda through comments on the fundraiser page.
“To our beloved and kindhearted Fumie, Thank you for making my gloomy days a little brighter and for always making me feel at home inside your restaurant,” wrote Charles Stone ’10. “Cornell was undoubtedly a stressful environment but none of that seemed to matter when I would enter Cafe Pacific and see your infectious smile.”
Oda said she started working at Cafe Pacific in 2005, where she rang up purchases and made tea. In 2014, the previous owners, the Hoshino family, retired and left the store to Oda.
With newfound responsibilities, Oda immediately made changes to the store’s aesthetic and operations.
“The walls used to be blue. There used to be two or three people cooking at the same time while I worked the register,” Oda said. “Now I’m the one who mainly cooks and makes tea, and the people I’ve hired — some of them are students — work the register and serve the food to people.”
With the sudden surge in donations from the fundraiser and new awareness among students bringing in business, Oda is now confident that she will be able to keep her spot on Dryden Rd.
“The food is my culture and I am happy to bring that to college students,” Oda said.