“Shift the traditional business models and be flexible with your vision.” This is the advice that Kaleb Hunkele, the owner of Standard Art Supply, would give to fellow young entrepreneurs thinking about setting up shop in downtown Ithaca. Hunkele founded the store two years ago at the age of 29; while the Downtown Ithaca Alliance (DIA) does not keep formal records of the number of under-30 business owners in the district, DIA Retail Director Kris Lewis says that it is a sizeable and upward-trending demographic. “Especially with the nationwide decline in family businesses – shops passed down from father to son to grandson, and so on – we see a lot more enterprising young people striking out and starting their own businesses. Downtown Ithaca has proven to be a fertile ground for many of these first-time business owners.”
A relative newcomer to the Ithaca area, Hunkele worked as a barista at Gimme! Coffee for a short time before deciding to start his own enterprise. As the only independent purveyor of art supplies in a city brimming with talent and appreciation for art, Hunkele’s store has been a very welcome addition to the downtown community. He selected the location – one block off the Ithaca Commons on East Seneca Street – for its easy walkability and bikeability, both for him and his customers. Standard Art Supply, which features a screen-printing studio and exhibition space, has also become a central gathering place for professional and aspiring artists to meet, network, and show their work.
When asked what else besides the location has contributed to his store’s success, Hunkele exclaims, “Great neighbors! Standard Art Supply wouldn’t be what we are today without the support of The Shop Café – the best people and coffee in town. The Shop Café happens to be owned and operated by another under-30 entrepreneur: Phoebe Aceto. A Tompkins County native, she reports, “I couldn’t imagine starting this business without my community, friends, and family.” Aceto, who opened the coffee shop and music venue in 2009 at the age of 26, characterizes the downtown business environment as more supportive than competitive, with many businesses including each other in special events and marketing initiatives. “People in this town understand what it’s like to work hard for something, and they will support you.”
Another highly popular café in downtown Ithaca, Waffle Frolic, was started in 2010 by two recent Ithaca College graduates, Alexis Randall and Julia Pergolini. Explains Randall, “We realized that this is the kind of place we wish had existed when we were in school – so what better place to set up shop?” Not yet 26, the proprietors have already hit on a winning business model: “Make sure the business is good for all seasons and is appealing to students and locals alike.” They are currently working to reinvest in the business with new equipment and furniture and are looking to host more special events such as small music acts. Adds Randall, “And one day, I’ll package and sell our Maple Hot Sauce – maybe before I reach 30.”
Says Gary Ferguson, Executive Director of the Downtown Ithaca Alliance, “Downtown Ithaca is a de facto business incubator. It remains a great place for new and fledgling entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses – be they retail, food and beverage, high-tech, service, or traditional office enterprises. Leading this entrepreneurial wave is a growing group of under-30 business owners who are bringing new energy, spirit, and bold thinking to business. Young entrepreneurs in downtown Ithaca love the urban environment, appreciate the dynamic marketplace, and take advantage of a wide range of space options. This is the place for young entrepreneurs to launch their dreams.”