After visiting the Yellow Deli a few months ago, I received an influx of fascination about this new restaurant taking on Ithaca. Nonetheless, my last visit to the Yellow Deli was before it officially opened, and I was left wondering how successful this restaurant would be once it opened and got into the swing of things. On a cloudy Sunday morning, one of those days where the clouds just kept threatening to break, I went down to the Yellow Deli to give the food a proper review.
The Twelve Tribes have had establishments in Ithaca for nearly two decades. The predecessor of the Yellow Deli was a café called the Maté Factor. The Twelve Tribes and their establishments have been boycotted by many around the country after it was exposed that their leader, Eugene Spriggs, had beliefs rooted in homophobia and racism. The Maté Factor was shut down in 2018 due to violations of child labor laws. Allegations, history and politics aside, the purpose of my visit to the Yellow Deli was to give their food a sincere, open-minded review.
I arrived right as the deli opened, at noon on a Sunday. There was another party of diners waiting outside but overall the atmosphere was quiet. I walked in and was greeted by an extremely cheerful hostess who seated us in the corner close to the door. Above our table was the quote “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream” referencing Amos 5:24, and also a phrase included in Reverend Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
The music playing throughout the restaurant created an ambiance that was slightly off-putting. To my best guess, the music was some form of Gaelic or Celtic folk. While I am sure it was intended to be cheerful and welcoming, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in a utopian commune as the sounds of flutes and violins fluttered into my ears.
After being seated we were handed beautiful, handwritten menus that had been laminated to preserve the work of art that they are. There was an abundance of choices to choose from including a plethora of sandwiches, a fruit salad and chili. The thing that stuck out to me the most was how cheap everything at the deli was. Sandwiches with chips and a pickle started at $8.50 with add-ons ranging from $0.25 to $1.50. It was about $1-$2 cheaper than Shortstop Deli, which is just down the street.
I ordered a lemon lime yerba mate, which the waitress claimed was their specialty, and a turkey sandwich with gluten free bread. As a person with celiac disease, I was quite impressed with the Yellow Deli carrying gluten free bread — something that many cafes on Cornell’s campus do not have. As we placed our orders, I spoke to our waitress, Simchah Williams, and another worker, Marcel Campbell, about how the Yellow Deli operates. I was primarily interested in how their food was so cheap.
In response to this inquiry, Campbell said “We try to buy local but this isn’t always possible — we grow a lot of our own things ourselves, including the spelt flour. If we run out we try to buy locally.”
This explained why they could list very affordable prices for their food. Most of the workers at the Yellow Deli are members of the Twelve Tribes religious organization, and as I read the low prices, I hoped that the Yellow Deli was making enough money to pay their workers fair wages.
I also wanted to know about what the space represented to them. Everything about the restaurant was so intentional — the music, the lighting, the friendly smiles from all the workers, what did it mean to them?
“We made this deli for Ithaca. It is for the people that live here. We want this to be a safe-haven for anyone who is seeking refuge.”
As we concluded our conversation with the two workers, our food and drink was served, overall coming out quite quickly. I first tried the yerba mate. As I sipped the lime-flavored drink through a reusable straw, I was met with an explosion of tanginess. The tart lime drink had an unmissable yerba mate flair that lingered on my taste buds. The quality of the yerba mate made sense though, as the previous Twelve Tribes establishment was the Mate Factory, which closed in 2016 in part due to violations of child labor laws.
After quenching my thirst, I eagerly moved on to my personalized turkey sandwich. The presentation was nothing special, with the sandwich encircled by kettle chips and a singular pickle. I took a bite of the sandwich and the melted cheese combined with the fresh turkey created a juicy, piquant taste. The gluten free bread was passable, not like I can complain, and the turkey and all the vegetables included were fresh and appetizing, creating a fine sandwich overall. It was obvious the chips came straight out of a Cape Cod Kettle Chips bag, but the sandwich made up for it. Overall, the food and drink combined to create a filling meal, for about $13. The service we received was standard yet kind. Our waitress, Simchah, was warm and attentive.
Settling the tab was a no-frill process — I simply walked up to a booth at the front of the restaurant and handed over my card. As I made my way out the door, I noticed that the man who had been sitting next to us was waving me over. He asked if we were journalists and stated he wanted to share his experience at the Yellow Deli. He identified himself merely by his first name, Patrick.
“I’ve been going to this place for many years, and I’ve seen them treat everyone the same, whether it is the mayor of Ithaca or a homeless person. I drive two hours every Sunday to spend my day here.”
The “many years” Patrick referenced likely referred to the Mate Factory. Although this very well could have been a Twelve Tribes member from another city, it was intriguing to hear from another customer’s perspective — one who can’t stop going to the Yellow Deli.
It’s clear that the Yellow Deli wants Ithacans and Cornellians to give them a chance. The Twelve Tribes market their deli as a safe space for anyone, and they try their best to create a warm and welcoming environment. Regardless of what the Twelve Tribes stand for, they know how to make food, and only time will tell if that’s good enough.
Jimmy Cawley is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]
Correction, Feb. 1, 8 p.m.: The initial version of this article failed to include necessary context regarding the history of the Twelve Tribes organization. It has been updated to include this context.