As a townie myself, I’ve always known about the local cult that inhabits Ithaca. I’ve seen them with their many children walking around the farmers market. I’ve seen their incredibly large property in the Fall Creek neighborhood. I’ve also always known about their restaurant, or series of café’s near the Commons.
However, the happenings of this cult have largely been dormant in my mind until I went on Instagram on Saturday morning. Apparently, some unknown organization had set up a free sample stand outside of Collegetown Bagels. Soon after the first Instagram stories exclaiming “free food,” I began to see dozens of Instagram stories proclaiming this organization as white supremacists, sexists and more. I had to learn more about this group of people, and what their history in Ithaca was.
A quick Google search will tell you that the Twelve Tribes organization is a self-proclaimed “emerging spiritual nation” that is deeply religious and rooted in the practice of following the new and old testament within the realms of self-governing communities. The Twelve Tribes organization is represented all over the world, with communities in North America, Europe and Australia. On the Twelve Tribes website, the Ithaca community is described as “a multicultural hub within an enlightened city.” The Twelve Tribes are clearly deliberate in selecting locations for communities that provide crossroads for a plethora of thoughts and ideals. I think that their establishment focuses on certain demographics, such as impressionable people going through transitional periods in their lives.
Although this weekend was the first time that many Cornellians heard about the Twelve Tribes organization, they have had establishments in Ithaca for nearly two decades and have called Ithaca home for much longer. The Twelve Tribes started their first restaurant at their current location in Ithaca in the early 2000’s with a café called “The Maté Factor.” This café and juice bar was immediately a popular hit in Ithaca due to its fresh food and prime location, right in the heart of Ithaca on the Commons. However, Ithaca locals soon caught on and began to post online and boycott the Maté Factor around 2006 after the founder of the Twelve Tribes, Eugene Spriggs of Chattanooga, Tennessee, expressed extremely racist and homophobic viewpoints, going as far to glorify slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, and stating that homosexual people should be put to death.
What made matters worse for the public opinion on the Maté Factor is that in 2018 the Department of Labor busted the Twelve Tribes in a nearby Upstate New York community for child labor and child abuse. Similar instances were reported to be found in the Ithaca location, with the employment and abuse of children aged as young as six years old.
Since then, the Maté Factor has been under a four year renovation, and have changed their name to the “Yellow Deli,” a restaurant aimed more at hearty food instead of light fare and drinks. The Yellow Deli will move away from serving mostly breakfast food, and will transition into an establishment focussed more on lunch and dinner.
Alas, after hearing about these developments, I knew I had to go down to the Commons and check out this restaurant myself. Coincidentally, I was going downtown for Apple Fest anyway, so I was curious to check out the Yellow Deli.
After roaming around the Commons, buying some apple cider and eating way too much kettle corn, I wandered over toward Yellow Deli right next to the Center Ithaca Community Center. I was intercepted outside by a tall man with a ponytail and a grin on his face. He was carrying a tray of some sort of punch or juice, and ushered me into the store. “Welcome to our home” he said with a smile as we made eye contact.
As I stepped into the Yellow Deli, I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place. There were incredible dangling ceiling lights with stunning woodwork all throughout the restaurant. The floors, walls and tables were all spotless. There were two levels with a fine wooden railing serving as a perimeter on the upper floor. Everything seemed too perfect; too good to be true. There were waiters (possibly Twelve Tribe members) scattered throughout the restaurant serving petit sandwiches and pastries. A couple members from my group tried some of the samples and seemed to agree with the consensus of the other visitors: the food was delicious.
What left me a bit unsettled were the subtleties underlying the operation, the things you had to look a bit closer into to notice. First, nearly every man that I saw around the restaurant had the same haircut, mannerisms and sheer enthusiasm. Everyone I talked to was excessively nice, which created a fantastic first impression and lively restaurant atmosphere. Second, and more concerning, was the lack of women working in the restaurant, or at least in plain sight. Out of the more than dozen employees I noticed congregated inside and outside the restaurant, I only saw one woman. However, I heard the chatter of women in the back of the restaurant, hidden behind a door. This made me wonder: Was there more to the Yellow Deli than what meets the eye? Does the Yellow Deli have something to hide? Do the women of this community slave away in the back creating these fantastic snacks while the men put on smiles and serve them to eager customers?
I was able to have a brief conversation with a couple of the members of the community, and learned that although they have a permit to give out free samples in their restaurant, it’s going to be two months until they are able to open their space to patrons. The waiters seemed to imply that they were starting a new chapter (and, to me, this seemed as if they were leaving the legacy of the Maté Factor behind them). I gathered that the Yellow Deli plans to be open 24 hours a day, five days a week, perhaps in the hope to cater to college students in need of a late night snack. Regardless of the problems affecting the Twelve Tribes community, the workers at the Yellow Deli seemed cheerful and eager for their new opening in downtown Ithaca.
Beyond any personal thoughts concerning the Twelve Tribes, I encourage everyone to at the least learn a bit more about them and research their history. It’s truly fascinating to have an organization like this right in our community, and I think we’re all eager to see what’s going to happen to the Ithaca Yellow Deli.
Jimmy Cawley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].