Spend any amount of time in Ithaca and you’ll quickly see why the city is regularly recognized in lists of best places to live: its beauty goes well beyond waterfalls. We feel lucky to live in such a diverse and dynamic community—and to welcome visitors who are genuinely curious to get to know us better.
We’ve gotten a lot of questions about how to support African-American Ithacans when visiting town. So we’ve decided to highlight some popular Black-owned businesses to celebrate the many ways in which they help build, feed, invigorate, heal and complete our community.
There is also much to earn more about Tompkins County's Black history including the influence of many notable icons.
Northstar House’s roots in Ithaca run deep. The locally-focused farm restaurant grew out of the friendship of three men who go way back: As toddlers, Jed Ashton and singer Elliot Martin ran together through the Stewart Park sprinklers, and as college students, some 30 years ago, they met saxophonist Lee Hamilton in Boston. Once back in Ithaca, the friends knew exactly what they wanted to add to the city’s going-out scene: a diverse, inclusive gathering place for families, aimed at the community.
Their vision came alive in 2009, named for the celestial body that “has always been a guiding light for African Americans since the time our ancestors were brought here against their will,” Ashton explains. Alluding to the town’s history as a stop along the Underground Railroad, “the North Star also represents those who participated, those who risked their lives to help people escape slavery.”
Today, Northstar House steers an eclectic mix of locals—and visitors—of all ages to the northern end of the Fall Creek neighborhood, just around the corner from Ithaca Falls, to enjoy dinner or Sunday brunch and the “lively libations and nice, nice vibes” promised by the restaurant’s motto.
“We were really aiming to create a bar, but the food took over,” says Ashton. The menu under head chef Patrick Fields changes seasonally and shows off influences “from Wisconsin to Jamaica to Mexico and back to Upstate New York” but always remains true to its local ingredients and vegetarian foundations—though the bestseller is, ironically, the burger. “It’s the beef,” Ashton explains. Sales really took off after the kitchen switched to meat from Autumn’s Harvest, a regional farm with humanely raised, grass-fed animals. (The vegetarian version is made with the plant-based Impossible Burger.) But the bar side hasn’t been neglected: the long list of bottled beers and rotating drafts puts on display what New York breweries have to offer. The team hopes to expand Northstar’s outdoor dining options to keep bringing the community together, especially in challenging times.
update 2022: Northstar House is open Tuesday, Thursday-Saturday 4 to 8pm offering takeout as well as indoor dining by reservation.
BLUE OYSTER CULTIVATION
Mushroom farming wasn’t exactly what Wendy Rizzo had in mind when she trained as an attorney and launched a 20-year career higher education, but first meeting her husband, Joe, at a farmer’s market in New York City may have been a hint that produce was in their future. Since 2009, Ithaca-based Blue Oyster Cultivation has been bringing a whole rainbow of mushrooms to customers at the Ithaca Farmers Market and the Union Square Greenmarket in Manhattan: blue, yellow and pink oysters, the bestseller shiitake and the more exotic lion’s mane, hen of the woods, king oyster and pioppino. From humble beginnings on a shoestring budget the business has, well, mushroomed into a successful family venture focused exclusively on edible fungi.
Joe is the mushroom expert and main driving force, says Wendy, who does a little bit of everything. It was Joe’s initial foray into mushroom growing as a middle-school science teacher—in charge of a community garden in Brooklyn and doing hands-on plant science with his students—that got them started. “We felt from the beginning that mushrooms would be well received at the farmer’s market,” Wendy explains. They were right, though it still took several years to build a steady customer base. Now son Damian, 20, manages a series of indoor grow rooms, where the mushrooms develop on bags of sawdust. 14-year-old Jillian is the Blue Oyster “spokesmodel” and accompanies her dad to the City on Saturdays to work the table at the market.
“Our customers are foodies mostly, people who feel adventurous about cooking,” says Wendy. Soon they will be able to explore new and maybe unexpected facets of mushrooms at the Rizzos’ newest venture, the Mushroom Spirits Distillery along the west side of Cayuga Lake. Aimed at tourists hitting the wine trails, the distillery and tasting room will be offering spirits infused with different mushroom flavors, such as reishi, lion’s mane and chaga. “And of course we’ll have our famous mushroom collection on display,” Wendy says. “We’re very excited.”
update 2022: Mushroom Spirits Distillery is available at the Ithaca Farmers Market.
When Gedese Degebasa opened Hawi Ethiopian Cuisine in 2015, she was in it for the long haul. The former athlete went from running marathons for her home country, Ethiopia, to running the popular restaurant’s kitchen and business side, sometimes for more than 60 hours a week. “’Hawi’ means ‘wish’ and also ‘lover of nature,’” Degebasa explains. “I love to cook, and having my own restaurant was my dream, my wish.”
Making it come true in Ithaca was more of a coincidence. Degebasa met her erstwhile business partner (who has since returned to Ethiopia) in the kitchen of a New York City Ethiopian restaurant, where she honed her culinary skills for two years after first arriving in the United States. “My business partner searched online for places in New York where the rent would be cheap,” Degebasa recalls. “I knew Manhattan but didn't know the other boroughs, so I thought Ithaca was somewhere in the city. I couldn't believe how much the bus ticket was, and how long the ride lasted. I kept thinking the next stop would be our stop. But when we finally got here, and I saw the place that would become our restaurant, it felt just right to me.”
Degebasa is most fulfilled by her work when the restaurant is full, servers are moving fast, and chatter fills the air as everyone eats and drinks, sharing large platters of Ethiopian favorites: vegetables, legumes and meat in a variety of mild and spicy sauces and served on top of injera, a large, thin sourdough pancake made from teff flour. Hawi welcomes many first-timers to her country’s cuisine, so the menu makes sampling easy. ‘Don’t be overwhelmed by the choices, but just try everything,” Degebasa says.
Five years in, the chef wouldn’t mind slowing down a bit and hopes that her sister will be able to join her from Ethiopia to help with the business. Then again, Degebasa already has her sights set on the next leg of her journey—opening a second Hawi restaurant in another city, to bring her native cuisine to even more people.
update 2022: Hawi is open for 3 to 9:30pm Tuesday-Sunday.
Additional Black-owned businesses:
- Rootwork Herbals and Bramble in Press Bay Alley
- MIX Kitchen & Bar
- Adrina Dietra
- Rashida Sawyer Bakery
- The Legacy by ARDM restaurant inside the Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport (ITH)
- Business Leaders of Color directory www.businessleadersofcolors.com
Olivia Hall is an accidental Ithacan, who—like so many—came to Ithaca, fell in love (with her husband and the city) and stayed a lot longer than she’d planned. After nearly 15 years, it still regularly surprises and delights her. Ithaca is a wonderful home to return to from her adventures across the globe—whether to Tokyo, Madrid, Cologne, Bucharest, Quito or Aqaba—and a place she’s proud to show off to visiting friends and family.