NYC college neighborhood businesses eagerly await return of students

A Book Culture outpost on Broadway at W. 114th Street, near Columbia University.
Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

Logo for THE CITY

Back-to-school sales have never been so crucial. 

While virtual learning kept students and staff at the city’s colleges safely apart, the separation also took a toll on nearby retailers that relied on an economic boost at the beginning of every semester and foot traffic throughout the school year.

Now some of those business owners say their hopes to make it out of the pandemic with some degree of financial stability are riding on an academic return to normal — even as COVID stubbornly refuses to disappear.

Since March 2020, the Book Culture store on Broadway and West 114th Street, near Columbia University, has been far quieter than the staff would have liked. 

“We’ve always had very busy stores,” said store manager Cody Madsen said, referring to Book Culture’s two locations in Morningside Heights and one in Long Island City, Queens.

That foot traffic dwindled during the pandemic. In 2020, “Something like 40% of our sales were online,” Madsen said. “Now it’s kind of leveled out to around 15% online.”

It’s more than just book stores that are looking for student and faculty dollars. From restaurants around NYU to a neighborhood pizza spot near Fordham University’s Bronx campus, local businesses are anticipating students’ in-person return to boost their bottom lines.

It Takes The Village

For Deep Patel and Karn Deshmukh, an influx of NYU students is crucial for their new restaurant to gain traction. The two 28-year-olds from Jersey City co-own Ambo, a quick-service Indian restaurant similar to Chipotle on East 8th Street near Washington Square Park. 

The partners selected the location for Ambo, which opened earlier this summer, with hopes it would attract a mix of Greenwich Village residents, local retail and office workers — and NYU’s tens of thousands of students and staff.

Ambo on East 8th Street near NYU is hoping for increased business from foot traffic this fall.Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

“So far, our customer base is mostly residential and office workers,” Patel said. “But we definitely expect to see an uptick in business when students come back.”

“The student influx just started, but we haven’t seen a lot yet,” Deshmukh added.

Ramaz Kiknadze, the owner of Cafe Delia, a 4-month-old Georgian restaurant a few doors down on East 8th, is similarly hopeful.

“We’re seeing 70% to 80% residential customers for now, but in September that could change,” Kiknadze said. “Students could be 50% of our customers.”

Kiknadze plans on using university-specific marketing tools to attract college kids to the fledgling restaurant, like advertising in the Campus Clipper and offering a 20% off to NYU students and staff.

“I hope that the situation isn’t going to change and nothing terrible happens with COVID,” Kiknadze said. “We need time to establish ourselves.”

Rachel Brandon, the marketing and events manager for the Village Alliance, the business improvement district that encompasses NYU and The New School, emphasized the importance of students to the neighborhood’s economic vitality.

“August can be a little empty because the residents are gone,” Brandon said. “Then this is the funny period where there’s not really summer school and we’re waiting on that ‘after Labor Day’ state for students to come back.”

‘Literally a College Town’

Michael Buono, the owner of Best Italian Pizza on East Fordham Road in The Bronx, is keeping his fingers crossed for the fall.

“I used to be able to forecast these things but at the moment I just don’t, because I don’t know what every day brings,” said Buono, the third generation of his family to operate the restaurant. “Because of the Delta variant and since mask-wearing is gearing up again, I can’t speculate.”

The pizzeria has seen an increase in online sales via food delivery apps like Uber Eats and GrubHub. 

Best Italian Pizza at East Fordham Road and Grand Concourse in The Bronx on Aug. 24, 2021Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

“We’ve always had [delivery], but it’s kind of metamorphosing into a bit more,” Buono said.

But at-home customers aren’t enough. According to Buono, the restaurant is only seeing 50% to 60% of its pre-pandemic revenue, so he’s looking forward to more students in the area.

“I’m hoping that my sales will go back up to business as usual,” he said.

Daniel Bernstein, the deputy director of the Fordham Road Business Improvement District, which includes 16,000-student Fordham University, wants students to return not only for the financial health of the BID’s members, but also for the intangible effect they have on the neighborhood.

“There’s a vibrancy that’s missing when they’re not around,” said Bernstein. “Fordham students are usually very good in the community.”

He thinks of the area as a city unto itself.

“If you’re a business on Fordham, you’ve got access to three major colleges right there,” Bernstein said, referring to Fordham, CUNY’s Lehman College and Monroe College. “It’s literally a college town.”

A New Economy

The pandemic has changed behavior, so the return to in-person instruction may not translate into a full return to in-person shopping, some observers say.

“I think most students will continue to do their shopping online,” said Dan O’Flaherty, an economics professor at Columbia. 

Still, local businesses “will do better than they did last year,” he predicted.

What the city’s overall economic picture will look like in even a few months or what kind of purchasing power young people will have this semester remains to be seen.

“On the one hand, there’s still a lot of unemployment,” O’Flaherty said. “But the student-age job market has been OK.” 

That could be a positive signal for student spending at nearby businesses. But other factors from the evolving COVID variants to the weather will play a part. The key, merchants say, is to be prepared for the unexpected.

“If anything, we’ve learned in the last two years that we’re pretty dexterous,” said Madsen, the bookstore manager.

This article was originally published on by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.