ITHACA, N.Y. — An Ithaca native who has been going to the Shortstop Deli for more than 30 years is the iconic store’s new owner.

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Chuck Dong, 43, has been a manager at Shortstop for 14 years. When previous owners Albert and Cindy Smith retired in mid-July after 37 years in business, they sold the deli to Dong instead of seeking an outside buyer.

“They would have got top dollar for this place,” Dong said, but they chose to entrust the deli to him. He’s been working at the deli on-and-off since he was a teenager.

New Shortstop owner Chuck Dong
New Shortstop owner Chuck Dong

“I’m going to carry on their legacy,” he said. “I’m not reinventing the wheel.”

Dong said he grew up in a house on North Albany Street by the Greater Ithaca Activities Center on Court Street. He said he spent a lot of his time at the activities center and often walked the two blocks down to hang out or shop at the deli.

“It was a treat to get Shortstop,” he said.

Dong was first hired at Shortstop as a teenager and worked there throughout high school.

Dong — who said he comes from humble beginnings — said that as a person of color, he was often looked at differently when he hung out at other places with his friends. (He also noted that Ithaca has not always been as diverse as it is now.). He said the deli was one of the places where he and his friends always felt welcome because of the kind of accepting environment the Smiths created there.

“It was always cool to go to Shortstop,” he said.

Dong dropped out of Ithaca High School as a teen. He said that with the support of his family and people in the community, though, he got his GED and went to college. He graduated from Cazenovia College with a degree in Liberal Arts.

About 16 years ago, he said, he packed up his car up and drove across the country to the Bay Area in California. But he quickly realized that California was not for him and came back to Ithaca, where he started working for the Smiths again at Shortstop.

He said that’s really when Albert and Cindy Smith gave him opportunities to work hard and learn the business.

“They gave me every opportunity to grow — to learn,” he said.

Among the lessons they taught him, was to invest in making the community a better place.

For instance, the Smiths made a decision about eight years ago to not sell cigarettes, lottery tickets or beer. Dong said the choice was made to try to have a positive influence on people.

They also donated to organizations around town, such as the Salvation Army, GIAC and The Learning Web.

Dong said the Smiths have had opportunities to sell the business or move out of downtown Ithaca in the past. They instead opted to buy a home three blocks from the deli and continue investing in the city.

“They would probably die tomorrow if they came and saw a big hotel sign (that says), ‘Future sight of the Holiday Inn’ or if they saw ‘7-11 coming soon,’” he said.

That will never happen, Dong said — not as long as he owns ShortStop.

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.