ITHACA, N.Y. — Opening a new restaurant in a pandemic is a bold move. Cornell University junior Daniel Jones, founder of 2 Stay 2 Go, a student-run pop-up restaurant in Collegetown, knew that was the case.
“I told him, there’s no chance in hell we’re going to be able to do it,” Cornell junior Noah Horns, co-founder and executive chef said. “When he told me this for the very first time, I knew he was crazy, but I also knew this was something I wanted to do.”
Five weeks before they planned to open, Jones and Horns went from storefront to storefront with a business plan in hand, asking to rent out the space for a month so they could open a pop-up restaurant. After a long day of rejections, they went into Hai Hong, a Chinese restaurant on Dryden Road, to order food. As soon as their food was ready, in walked Annie Quach, a Cornell School of Hotel Administration alum who graduated in 2005.
“Instead of leaving, like we would have if the food was done a few minutes earlier, we sat down and talked to her, and that was the last restaurant we ever went to,” Horns said.
2 Stay 2 Go officially opened Oct. 9 and is located at 208 Dryden Road. The concept of the restaurant is a farm-to-table menu where the top two selling items stay on the menu, while the lowest two selling items are replaced by new ones the following week. The restaurant partners with local vendors and farms, like Cornell Dairy, Autumn Harvest Farm and Crosswinds Farm and Creamery. Jones, Horns and their team of seven other hotel administration students are operating out of the Vietnam Restaurant storefront, which is adjacent to Hai Hong. Both the Vietnam Restaurant and Hai Hong menus are being served out of the Hai Hong kitchen.
Quach’s family has owned Hai Hong and Vietnam Restaurant for over 30 years, after her parents immigrated to Ithaca in the 1970s. Quach’s plans were in flux when Jones and Horns walked in the door — her background lies in special events and catering, and last fall, she was starting to work in the hotel school. However, her plans were altered when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“My parents are headed into their retirement, and they have done this successfully for so, so many years. I want them to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor a little bit more,” Quach said. “I wouldn’t have agreed if I didn’t think their concept was interesting and viable and that they had a solid plan to execute their business idea.”
The restaurant industry has been hit hard as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the six months since the pandemic hit the United States, approximately 100,000 restaurants closed and nearly 3 million employees lost their jobs, according to the National Restaurant Association. The industry is on track to lose $240 billion in sales by the end of the year.
Quach said that restaurants in Collegetown have been especially impacted by the pandemic because most of the storefronts are small spaces that have not been conducive to socially-distanced dining. She said that sales are down approximately 60% since the beginning of the pandemic. Although students have been back in Collegetown, revenue has not increased much because locals are less inclined to come out, and thus the guest check averages are lower. Hai Hong and Vietnam Restaurant are operating take-out and delivery, which Quach said is not sustainable.
“For my particular family, everyone in my family is high-risk,” she said. “They’re all older. So that plays into business decisions that most people may not consider.”
Jones said that he was inspired to open a restaurant because it was always his grandfather’s dream to do so. He thought that the pandemic was an opportune time to pursue this because of the likelihood of a restaurant space being available. Horns has an associate degree in culinary arts and with his previous restaurant experience, said that he has always wanted to open a restaurant as well. They said that they wanted to fill a void in the area for affordable, but high-quality food.
“We can be here, explore social entrepreneurial ventures, really expand on the principles that we learned in class and apply them to the real world,” Jones said. “Truly, I think the best part of this project is being able to share the experiences with everyone.”
The venture is self-funded and not affiliated with any classes. Quach said that they are sharing profits and facilities costs for the space.
In preparing to serve the public, Horns and Jones said they spent hours driving to farms to work with local suppliers to get products, and that they would often be in the restaurant working until around 3 a.m. They moved into the kitchen just two days before they opened. 2 Stay 2 Go, which is open Thursdays through Sundays, sold out during its first week of business.
“It was the most amazing experience and getting to see just the first week’s turnout and the reaction from the community, it’s instantly made the hundreds and hundreds of hours of work that we put in this last month, all worth it,” Horns said.
On Oct. 17, they announced on their Instagram that one of their employees tested positive for COVID-19, presumably from an exposure at Wegmans, Jones said. Following the announcement, 2 Stay 2 Go closed for two weeks while the employees quarantined at the Statler Hotel. Jones said that no one else tested positive.
“We took this seriously, I think we did a really good job compared to other businesses that I’ve seen that either don’t say anything or keep operating,” Jones said. “We didn’t want to have the perception of anyone feeling like they weren’t safe in our restaurant, either as an employee or as a guest. From that standpoint, we’re all disappointed that we missed out on a week of service. But we’re really excited that we’re coming back.”
The restaurant is reopening Oct. 30 at 5 p.m. Moving forward, Jones said that there will be more signage encouraging social distancing and sanitizing, as well as a record of who is coming into the restaurant. The restaurant has been practicing contactless ordering and pickup since it first opened earlier in the month, which Jones said will continue.
2 Stay 2 Go will remain open until Nov. 15, changing from the intended end date of Nov. 9, Jones said. Hours on Thursday, Friday and Saturday are from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Sunday is from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to sellout.
Jones said that he hopes to keep doing month-long pop-ups in coming semesters. He also said that they are launching 2 Stay 2 Go 2 You, a catering service, in February and March that will run out of the same space.
Quach said that she is happy to support 2 Stay 2 Go, and hopes to facilitate more collaborations between hotel administration students and local restaurants, similar to the Hospitality Employment Training Program run through the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.
“Basically, it’s so all of the very privileged students who get to go to school up on the hill really will understand what it’s like to come from the other side,” she said. “It’ll open their eyes, if they really do want to be restaurateurs, to who they will be hiring, and the challenges they will face.”
Photos courtesy of 2 Stay 2 Go.