March 31, 2021

Local Establishments Welcome Students; “Tigers in Town” Reaches Out to Community

By Donald Gilpin

For Princeton University students it’s a safe social event across Nassau Street, a chance to get out of the dormitory, and an opportunity to help out local businesses while enjoying free food, beverages, and other merchandise. And for local restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses, it’s an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to thousands of University students and provide a boost to sales in what for many has been a long, slow pandemic era business cycle.

Princeton University’s recently created, popular Tigers in Town program, supported by funds that in other years would be used for in-person events on campus and student giveaways, encourages students to explore the town while supporting local businesses.

Tico’s Eatery and Juice Bar, jaZams, Small World Coffee, Sakrid Coffee Roasters, Say Cheez Cafe, Hoagie Haven, Pizza Den, and Ficus have already hosted groups of University students, and the idea is attracting additional businesses and more and more students.

“I like that we can be engaged with the community,” said Princeton University senior Rachel Hazan. “I also love the free food.” 

Hazan, who as a participant in the program discovered Pizza Den and enjoyed a smoothie from Rico’s and coffee from Small World and Sakrid, will soon be treated to a hoagie from Hoagie Haven courtesy of the Princeton Class of 1996, whose members saw their reunion canceled but wanted to support seniors as they were writing their theses.

“It’s a way for them to build community across class years,” said Tom Dunne, deputy dean of undergraduate students, who oversees the program. “It’s a way of maintaining connections and class ties to Princeton.”

Dunne explained that students wanting to support local businesses through the difficulties of the pandemic provided the motivation to start the program. “Students began to think about businesses they had frequented in Princeton, and they came up with creative ideas about how to support businesses that had become a defining part of their college experience,” he said. 

It took some organizing among businesses, University administration, and students in order to enlist campus groups, sign up students for particular time slots, and maintain appropriate health and safety measures. “We’ve talked businesses through that process,” said Dunne. “It’s a great opportunity to partner with businesses in this new era and this new enterprise. It’s a great chance to have a productive, collaborative, and creative way to connect businesses with student consumers in a way that’s safe, and also to introduce new students to the local community.”

Dunne noted that the program is growing every day, with the Undergraduate Student Government committing an additional $15,000 to the program just last Sunday and the possibility of more in the future. “We anticipate we’ll be adding more businesses in the coming months,” Dunne said, and he went on to mention future planning for outreach to businesses in the Princeton Shopping Center.

“Students are looking for ways to contribute and to be good citizens during this time when so many communities are stressed,” he added. “This program gives them opportunities to do that and they feel good about it.”

Renee De Bernard, the owner of Tico’s, where the Tigers in Town program was launched on March 9 with “Tico Tuesday,” is pleased with the program so far. “It’s a great way for the University to put money into the community and help the students at the same time,” she said.

Tico’s, she noted, lost about 75 percent of its business overnight at the start of the pandemic and had to shut down for two months. When De Bernard found out that students were returning to campus, she was excited, not just because of the influx of customers but because she had built relationships with students and knew them by name.

“This program is helping everybody get back onto their feet,” she said. “It also introduces my store to incoming freshmen who haven’t been on campus until now, and it’s a great way to introduce my product to any student. An amazing program.” Tico’s will be hosting its fifth Tigers in Town event this Friday.

Small World General Manager Vincent Jule was equally enthusiastic about the program.  “It’s welcome business,” he said, “and it runs smoothly. The students stand in line, socially distanced and masked, very well organized.” He went on to point out that Tigers in Town brings back a sense of normalcy. “It has definitely brought more activity to Small World at a time when things are slow.”

Say Cheez Cafe owner Omar Delgado was also pleased with the program. He especially likes the way it helps the students to get to know the town. “Sometimes they get isolated and don’t know what Princeton is about except for the campus,” he said.  “The outcome is good for everyone. I’m very happy about this.”

Delgado continued, “This helps the larger community to understand students and student life and helps the students, who sometimes feel isolated on campus. This approach connects the community with the students.”

Looking forward to enjoying the benefits of the Tigers in Town program as she finishes her thesis and her last weeks as an undergraduate, Hazan noted the importance of both town businesses and University students being able to escape their bubbles.

“Also, a number of students can’t afford to eat out often so this helps to equalize the playing field,” she said. “It gives us all an opportunity to branch out. I appreciate that businesses are willing to work with the student government and students are willing to explore different eating experiences, even in the era of COVID.”