ITHACA, N.Y.—If you ask folks to come up with a handful of restaurants and eateries that are iconic to Ithaca, you’ll find a fairly limited subset of places like Moosewood, Collegetown Bagels, State Street Diner, Shortstop Deli and Purity Ice Cream. These places are all local institutions that help to define Ithaca’s character.
It’s a distinction that Bruce Lane and his wife Heather have gratefully appreciated over the past 23 years. Purity, of course, is considerably older than that—it’s been around since 1936, and opened at its current location in 1953. When the Lanes purchased it in 1998, the business had fallen on hard times, according to Bruce.
“This is our 24th summer, when we took it over in the spring of 1998 from the granddaughter of the founder, and it was just about of business at that point. Margo Klose had been trying to run it from Portland, Oregon, but without a steady hand on the helm…at that time, there was a lot of competition from big ice cream companies. Now it’s kinda changed in that more grocery stores are into local products, though they still prefer as streamlined an operation as possible. It was hard for old Purity to compete, and we spent a lot of time and money to turn Purity around into a smoothly running, nicely profitable business. Having had a lot of fun over the years, now it’s time to pass along the institution to somebody else.”
It is true that time stops for no one, and for the Lanes, it’s time for the next chapter in their lives. They’ve decided to fully retire and place Purity up for sale. It has nothing to do with the sales, which are healthy and profitable, or the stresses, which they’ve managed the ebb and flow of for so many years. It is about time, and being able to enjoy their time as they enter their golden years. Bruce is already partially retired, but Heather was still working Purity full-time, and then some.
“Heather has two speeds, on and off, she’s been working 80 hours a week. As our kids have gotten older and we started to have grandkids, it’s become apparent you can’t enjoy them and do a business that’s as busy and multifaceted as Purity. That’s pretty much it. Everyone has a time in their life when they need to retire, and this is the time I’ve convinced Heather to retire,” said Bruce Lane.
“When COVID came along, it was a good thing in that it caused us to stop serving (restaurant) food, and when we started up ice cream again we didn’t do food. It allowed Heather more time for her passions like hiking, and I’m trying to walk all the roads of Tompkins County, 5-8 miles at a time, and Heather likes to hike trails 100, 200, 500 miles long, and that requires her to be gone for a number of weeks. After COVID, our lives were much less complex without doing food, and we could see if she was retired she could do more of that.”
When asked what he’ll miss the most about the business he and wife rebuilt, Bruce Lane doesn’t hesitate to say the customers are what made Purity special for both him and Heather. “As opposed to a more transactional retailer, we get a lot of tourists but the vast majority of our customers are locals and students. We get to see the same people over and over again and some of our employees already know what those customers want when they walk in. We’ll miss those relationships. People love Purity, they consider it their ice cream store. We were blown away with how many people showed up in the winter when we began serving ice cream again under the awning. It’s probably an essential business by now!”
Arguably the most controversial moment in their tenure as owners was when Purity switched from making the ice cream in its own on-site dairy plant, to working with Byrne Dairy to make the ice cream per their recipes. Lane says they still get emails and letters about it. It boiled down to a couple of reasons; when the “Octopus” intersection was redone in the 1990s, the rerouting of North Fulton Street removed Purity’s ability to pull milk trucks up to the loading dock, and their concerns about wastewater from the aging dairy plant. As a result, in 2006, they contracted out the manufacturing. Several years later, the former dairy plant was renovated into expanded retail space with boutique office space on the second floor.
“Their plant isn’t much bigger than our old plant. Every tub is still filled by hand. Their quality assurance and lab techniques are light years beyond what we could do as a teeny manufacturer. This isn’t some polybag (plastic bag of ice cream mix), this is raw milk, pasteurization, all within a couple days from start to final product,” said Lane.
At this time, there are no plans to shut down Purity. The Lanes will keep running it in the near term as they seek a buyer. That’s good news for the eight full time staff and twenty or so part timers, with Lane noting that the seasonal summer staff are often teenagers just starting to learn the ropes of professional employment and the responsibilities that entails. “We make good treats, but we’ve come to appreciate that Purity is an ‘adult’ generator. We’ve been the first job for thousands of people over 85 years. We teach kids job skills, how to talk to customers, organize time, and they leave after one summer or 49 years (literally, Purity’s most-tenured staffer worked there 49 years), that makes them a better employee for the next place they go through. We see that as a big contribution to the local community. It informs a lot of charitable work too, donating to youth employment activities,” Lane said.
Now, as for those who might be interested in buying Purity, Bruce Lane says there’s a huge opportunity if someone wants to dream big, though sticking with the Ithaca store works out just as well.
“Purity is redolent in the different opportunities that somebody could employ. I would anticipate that anybody going into Purity would do food again, probably with a different menu than Heather and I, but that’s okay. There are a lot of regional opportunities with ice cream. When I think of the thousands of former Ithaca College and Cornell grads that have moved away to New York, New Jersey, Albany, Rochester, places we don’t get to—there’s a huge opening for somebody with that energy and interest to expand. For us, it was a lifestyle decision to focus here.”
For those interested in reaching out to Bruce and Heather to inquire about the business, feel free to email Bruce at firstname.lastname@example.org. Bruce stresses they will only entertain serious offers and the buyer will have to have proof of financial capacity in order to buy the business. Even in retirement, however, you’ll still see the Lanes around Ithaca, whether Bruce is checking out the trains and the latest in West End Development, or Heather hiking the trails, at least the ones that aren’t weeks-long journeys.
“We’re Ithaca people,” he said. “I’ve been here since 1985, Heather was born and raised in Dryden, and her mom and stepdad still live in Marathon. We’ll spend more time traveling, but we’ll be Ithacans for a very long time. We look forward to doing more in warm weather than just scooping ice cream!”