Michael Wenye Li/Sun File Photo

Since its founding in 1976, Collegetown Bagels has become a mainstay on College Avenue and iconic in Ithaca.

November 29, 2023

Inside Collegetown Bagels’ Role in the Tapestry of Cornell’s Culture

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Just outside Cornell’s bustling campus lies a place where the aroma of freshly baked bagels mingles with the fervor of student life. Collegetown Bagels — also known as CTB among students — stands as not only an eatery but also an icon and community space entrenched in the fabric of both Cornell and Ithaca’s culture. 

A revered hub, CTB has shaped the essence of student experiences since its founding in 1976. Corey Ryan Earle ’07, who teaches American Studies 2001: The First American University — a class on Cornell’s history —  encapsulated the sentiment that binds generations of Cornellians to CTB in an email to The Sun.

“CTB is a shared experience for Cornellians,” Earle said. “At a large, decentralized university like Cornell, there aren’t many things that nearly everyone has experienced. But CTB comes close, so it plays a role in creating a sense of community.” 

Since its inception, CTB has woven a narrative that intertwines with Cornell’s essence, evolving from a humble establishment into an integral part of the university’s tapestry. Its journey, steeped in history, mirrors the evolution of Cornell itself. From its early days to becoming an iconic fixture, CTB has etched itself into the collective memory of Cornellians. 

Nearly 50 Years on College Avenue: A History of CTB

Collegetown Bagels opened in 1976, founded by “couple guys from Long Island,” and has been on College Avenue for its entire existence. Current owner Gregar Brous — then at Ithaca College — joined the team in 1978, and purchased the business in 1981, eventually bringing his daughter Lindsey Brous ’12 into the fold as well.

“I liked the business – I had gotten familiar with it. And it got under my skin. So I decided I should go and open up a place somewhat similar in a different city, similar kind of market. I liked the market,” Brous said in an interview with The Sun. “And the guy that owned the place said to me, ‘Why don’t you just buy this place?’ It was right at home, I was familiar with the location, with the business, and ended up bringing my family into it when we bought it — and here we are today.”

Owner Gregar Brous sits in front of plans for the new Collegetown Bagels location at Sheldon Court on Jan. 19, 2020. (Boris Tsang/Sun File Photo)

Despite admitting he had no vision for the company when he bought it, Brous then purchased the Ithaca Bakery in 1989 — the two brands share the same menu offerings and production process — and moved CTB’s flagship location in Collegetown to its former home at 415 College Ave. in 1995. Between the two brands, Brous has seven locations across Ithaca.

“What we did was move all of our production into [the Ithaca Bakery location on 400 North Meadow St.]. So it gave us a commissary — a base of operations that we could feed our other units from,” Brous said. “And [the Ithaca Bakery] was an iconic name and business that had been around since 1910, so we had to kind of navigate how to maintain both brands. We kept both names — we felt like they both stood on their own and should be partners and established on their own.”

But Student Agencies — a student-run real estate company and the owner of 415 College Ave. — announced it would demolish the building in which CTB was located after an attempt to have it designated as a landmark failed in 2019, ultimately replacing it with the Student Agencies apartment building and an Ithaca Beer Company location.

CTB was thus forced to move to its current location across the street at 420 College Ave. in 2020. Before the move, Ithacans came together to support CTB, leaving messages on the windows before the building’s demolition in June 2020. 

“We were very thankful for the support,” Brous said. “We were disappointed with the city that they didn’t see [415 College Ave.] as something that should be maintained, because the building had great history and was a key element to the feel of Collegetown.”

Farewell messages written on CTB’s wall prior to its relocation to 420 College Ave. (Michael Wenye Li/Sun File Photo)

As part of the move — and due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which happened at the same time — CTB operated a food truck on College Avenue.

“We pulled our trailer up on the curb and just ran out of a food truck instead,” Brous said. “And it was actually fun. It was a good way for us to stay connected to the community, to be relevant and to stay out there where people can really see what we’re doing.”

Brous said that the bakery location — where all the baked goods are made — operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week for bagel production, even though the storefront only operates during relatively standard business hours. Bagels are then boiled at each location following their delivery every morning.

Cornell and CTB

Earle, reflecting on CTB’s broader significance, noted CTB’s presence in Ithaca beyond the iconic Collegetown location, echoing its connection to both the University and the Ithaca community.

“CTB is more than just its Collegetown location, and the Ithaca Bakery locations are popular beyond the Cornell community,” Earle said. “I think the business is an important part of the Ithaca restaurant scene.”

Earle said CTB is such an integral part of the Ithaca community that it has become a meeting spot for alumni returning to campus and for Cornellians who have guests in Ithaca.

“Because it’s such a signature stop for visiting alumni, I find myself there whenever a friend is in town,” Earle said. “And I have many fond memories of sangria with friends on the CTB patio in Collegetown on a warm evening, both as a student and an alumnus.”

CTB’s ubiquity among Cornellians spans generations, as the store continues to welcome alumni and current students and foster connections beyond bagels and coffee, creating a vibrant social tapestry that defines the CTB experience.

The heartbeat of Collegetown Bagels echoes not only with the buzz of students but with the diverse perspectives and contributions of its employees, many of whom are Cornell students. Pascale Zissu ’25, a former CTB employee, credited CTB’s employees with contributing to the connection between CTB and University student life.

“I feel like the employees shape most of the CTB culture. They are all so cool, friendly, and down-to-earth,” Pascale Zissu said. “They make the atmosphere there so welcoming. I can’t imagine what CTB would be like with different employees.”

Pascale Zissu also reminisced about the intersection of her roles as an employee and a student. 

“It was always funny to see my classmates and sometimes even my TAs or professors while I was behind the counter,” Pascale Zissu said. “I remember one time one of the hockey boys came in, which was cool because I’m a big fan of the team.”

For Pascale Zissu, her experience interacting with the community as a CTB employee enriched her time at Cornell and forged connections that transcend the shop’s confines. 

“Working at CTB had such a positive impact on my time at Cornell,” Pascale Zissu said. “The school is so big, and working at the College Avenue location allowed me to both meet other students working there and connect with our community in a unique way that made it feel tighter-knit. I am super grateful for that.”

The shop’s legacy also extends beyond casual encounters, intertwining with Cornell’s traditions and culture. Earle even said some of CTB’s menu offerings were given their names by his former students, which allows him to reconnect with them every time he orders one. Earle also echoed a sentiment among many other Cornellians, saying the emotions CTB fosters transcend time and distance as alumni carry its essence as a cherished memento of their Cornell days.

Two customers sit outside Collegetown Bagels on Apr. 12, 2014. (Kelly Yang/Sun File Photo)

“For alumni, CTB is all about nostalgia — the smell, the sandwiches, the memories,” Earle said. “I know people who ship CTB bagels across the country because CTB was a special part of their Cornell experience.”

CTB’s integration into Cornell’s traditions and events is a testament to its profound place in the
University’s spirit, Earle said, even as featured menu items at events like reunions.

“The Class of 2013 worked with CTB to create a special reunion sandwich for their 10th reunion in June [2023],” Earle said. “That’s a great example of how important CTB is to alumni, even a decade after they graduated.” 

CTB and a Changing Collegetown

CTB is part of the Cornell experience for so many generations of alumni,” Earle said. “There’s a lot of turnover in Collegetown businesses, and I think it’s important for Cornellians to have places like CTB that offer consistency and familiarity, even years after graduation.” 

CTB — along with longtime Eddy Street grill Souvlaki House — is a rare oasis of stability in a Collegetown restaurant scene that has seen significant change since the 1970s. Even CTB itself has changed locations three times in its 47 years. Yet CTB has changed as well, Brous said, growing and adapting with the changing tastes of its customers.

“In 1981, I baked the bagels, I brought them up front and people sold them. It was a pretty simple operation,” Brous said. “And as we’ve expanded location by location or grown different parts of our business, we’ve had to build the strength of our internal management and our staff, to focus on our product line and how they’re connected to the community. So it’s much more diverse, much bigger — our managerial staff is really crucial to our success.”

Brous has also adapted to each new location, with the move to 415 College Ave. allowing CTB to acquire a liquor license.

“It was a lot bigger – we had an on-premise liquor license, so we were able to serve beer and wine, and people can drink it both in the store and on the patio,” Brous said. “And it gave us a lot more seating. So we were able to expand the menu and expand our hours and expand our product line dramatically.” 

However, not all alumni are receptive to the changes CTB has made to move with the times. Nicole Zissu ’93 — Pascale Zissu’s mother — said its expansions have made the menu overwhelming and the environment muddled in a statement to The Sun.

“I feel like it lost what it was in the expansion,” Nicole Zissu said. “It is overwhelming to try to read the menu and make choices, and know which register to go to now. I prefer a bagel place that is a bagel place and a bar or restaurant which is separate.” 

Nicole Zissu went on, saying its presence in Collegetown is reminiscent of a monopoly.

“I think the monopoly-esque role it currently has is puzzling,” Nicole Zissu said. “I wonder what happened to Collegetown in general. There were so many dining options and bars back then — Collegetown feels abandoned and strange to me.”

But the future trajectory of CTB is intricately linked with the vibrancy of Collegetown itself, according to Earle. 

“Having a vibrant Collegetown is critical, and CTB has made that corner a social hotspot, regardless of which side of the street it’s on,” Earle said.

Despite the changes Collegetown has experienced in recent years, much of what the Cornell and Ithaca communities have appreciated about Collegetown Bagels since its founding remains unaltered, with Brous saying CTB’s biggest inspiration is the city itself.

“What keeps [CTB] going is the interaction with the staff, the interaction with the guests and the interaction with the community and a whole city that really is a valuable piece of our existence,” Brous said. “It’s the most rewarding thing we get out of business.”

Olivia LaBonte ’26 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].