After 13 years, Manndible Cafe will soon brew its last espresso drinks and roll up its final burritos — the independently-owned campus eatery will close May 21 after the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences unexpectedly terminated its contract in mid-April.
Cafe regulars from professors to alumni responded to last week’s closing announcement with disappointment and heartbreak, mourning the loss of the Mann Library gathering spot that brought a taste of Ithaca to the Ag Quad.
But the eatery, known for its home-cooked dishes and sustainability efforts, was already in its final stretch: Owners Pam Gueldner and Kathleen Pasetty had been working to sell the business since February 2020 after decades in the food industry.
On April 15, Cornell procurement services sent Gueldner and Pasetty a letter stating that CALS had ended its contract with the cafe — a decision that came as a bittersweet relief to the co-owners.
“We were already gearing up to make some change. We had felt that Manndible had been a tremendous business, certainly busy, certainly well-loved,” Pasetty said. “But we’ve been doing this for a long time. We thought we would end up bringing a buyer to the table, but something else happened.”
“It is certainly within [Cornell’s] right, and it’s not like we just started the business,” she continued. “We had a really good run.”
Now, CALS will replace the Mann Library spot with another dining option — the college intends to announce its final plans later this year, according to Samara Sit, associate dean for CALS marketing and communications. Sit wrote in an email to The Sun that the college is sad to see Manndible close. Gueldner and Pasetty will also close Fork and Gavel Kitchen, their sister cafe at the Cornell Law School.
As the long-time business partners and their staff soak up the final few weeks on campus, the sudden closing comes with waves of both relief and sadness.
After running the cafe with little business over the last two semesters, open to feed the nearby professors, Mann staff and students, the closing has given them a new certainty for the future after a stressful year, as the virus rattled the restaurant industry, Gueldner said.
“We’ve loved Mann Library staff and the students and the staff in CALS and faculty,” Pasetty said. “We’ve missed a lot of people this year because these two semesters have certainly not been filled with our regulars, and I know they’ve missed us too.”
Poring over years of Manndible memories, the cafe’s owners and their long-time customers are now processing the closing, just as Cornell is on the cusp of returning to a bustling Mann Library lobby this fall.
Pasetty said she cries reading the ongoing flood of responses. One customer wrote in to say that they would be late to class to meet up over a mocha at Manndible. One alum wrote that he had his first date with his wife at Manndible, expressing heartbreak that their college hangout spot will be gone when he visits Cornell.
For Prof. Ariel Ortiz-Bobea, applied economics and management, Manndible has been his go-to place for coffee and curry Fridays since he came to Cornell in 2014. He said he wished Cornell took the sentiments of students and staff into account when closing campus locations.
Ortiz-Bobea said it isn’t just the location and food he’ll miss, but also the friendly staff and the local cafe atmosphere, which sets Manndible apart from Cornell Dining eateries.
As a regular, Ortiz-Bobea recalled Manndible staff preparing his drink order, a latte, without him saying a word: “I would make a nod and they would start preparing it,” Ortiz-Bobea said. “They knew exactly what I would order.”
Mann Library’s interim director Sara E. Wright said Manndible’s friendliness stands out to her, writing to The Sun that the cafe has always gone out of its way to meet student, faculty and staff needs. Wright said the cafe regularly asked for feedback to cater to their customers — which is how the famed curry Fridays came into being.
“We’ve greatly enjoyed our relationship with Manndible Cafe and believe it’s truly added a special character to the Mann Library environment,” Wright wrote.
Manndible’s relationship with the library stretches back to its founding. The cafe originally opened at Cornell through a contract with Mann Library that looked to bring an independent business to campus, but the contract was reorganized under CALS three years ago. Gueldner said they have received less support and communication under the CALS contract.
Wright and many regular customers said they also cherished the cafe for its sustainability efforts, from using locally-sourced ingredients to spearheading campus-wide collaborations to encourage reusable mug usage. Pasetty reflected on the cafe’s partnership with the student organization WasteNot Cornell, which allowed Manndible to replace single-use plastic with a display case for muffins and scones.
Cassie Kelley ’21 called the eatery “perfect” for CALS, as it offers plant-based options, writing that she hopes the next Mann Library eatery caters to the same sustainability goals. Linah Ababneh, a former Cornell plant biology senior lecturer, said she appreciated seeing the college’s mission in practice.
“At Manndible, sustainability is the norm. That’s why it was my go-to place,” Ababneh said. “It’s OK to show up with my soup bowl and get food in it. It’s OK to show up with my cup. It’s OK to say, ‘You just messed up the recycling.’ They would take ingredients from farmers.”
For current and former CALS students, Manndible was also a central gathering spot. Daniel Rothenberg ’11, who studied atmospheric sciences, said the cafe represented community to him. Meeting in front of the cafe before a group study session became a ritual.
“It’s a meeting place, where many research ideas come to fruition, too,” Ortiz-Bobea said, noting that several of his papers have come from discussions at the cafe. “That’s my space outside of the office. It’s more than an eatery. I don’t know if [the University] thought about that.”
CALS declined to comment on why it terminated its contract with Manndible, but Gueldner speculated that this decision was related to the pandemic and overall University finances. CALS did not provide additional details to the co-owners.
“The decision to end our contract was difficult given the many years Manndibles has served the CALS community,” CALS’ contract termination letter to the owners read.
This abrupt ending has not come without hurdles for Gueldner and Pasetty. Having the contract terminated has prevented them from selling the business and getting a return on their investment. Gueldner also said procurement asked Wednesday if they had registered Manndible as a trademark — a question that she said made her think Cornell was considering using the name.
Procurement services clarified Friday afternoon that it did not intend to suggest the University would ever use the names Manndible or Fork and Gavel without permission or compensation, writing that Cornell does not have the rights to them and that there had been a misunderstanding.
The University can’t legally use the Manndible name because it is registered as doing business in Tompkins County and the logo belongs to the local artist who designed it, according to Gueldner. Still, the co-owners said Wednesday this question initially felt like a reversal of Cornell’s commitment to supporting women-owned businesses, undermining the mission of its original contract with the cafe.
“Taking our name without paying for it and using it with the understanding that we are adamantly opposed to it, is not consistent with Cornell’s position of supporting a women owned business and could be viewed as hurting us or depriving us of income,” the co-owners wrote to Cornell administrators in an email Wednesday night.
Former regulars like Ababneh similarly lamented the closing as a loss for the limited number of businesses run by women — “owned by people that we care about.”
“I wish them all the best in the next steps. I’m really sad to see them go,” Ababneh said. “I guess it’s the nature of the pandemic that you have to let go of a lot of things. I hope they know that we’re going to miss them.”
In the cafe’s final days, the Mann Library lobby foot traffic has slowed to a trickle, with students studying at distanced tables, hearing the whirring of the espresso machine and grabbing their final bites at the beloved eatery.
Update, May 7, 2:45 p.m.: This post has been updated to include a response from Cornell procurement services.