The Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference

This is part one of coverage from the 2015 Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference. Check back in a few days from now, when I’ll have some fun conversations from the men that made up the Celebrating Black Men in Culinary and Hospitality panel.

All Photos Cheryl Lathan

All Photos Cheryl Lathan

“How do we build a heritage experience?”

“What were the ingredients in the ‘Harlem Renaissance brand?'”

“What does our own 21st Century version of that brand look like?”

“How can we create a new brand of Harlem that stands the test of time?”

Those questions permeated panels at the Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference last Wednesday. For the past three years, Harlem Park to Park has hosted the “interactive discussion on growing the hospitality and culinary industries in one of New York’s most iconic neighborhoods.” Held at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, panels contemplated “What is Harlem now?” more than anything, compiling opinions on how locals can help to define that brand and make sure the general public knows it exists.

I’ve been a New Yorker for over a decade, and I moved to the little enclave of curvy streets known as Audubon Heights – nestled aside the Hudson River directly between west Harlem and Washington Heights – almost five years ago. Though I’ve interviewed at least 150 chefs in New York City alone, only two have been at restaurants above Central Park. It’s part of  a general problem for two big reasons: First, I eat where I work, and that means right now I support restaurants far from the community in which I live. Second, along with the downtown-ness of my work, I’d also become tired of seeing the same (generally) white, male faces at the helm.

New York City is becoming increasingly harder to live in financially, while we’re still one of the most diverse cities in the world regarding both ethnicity and culture. Big business people invest big money in big theaters and big clubs and big restaurants. They have the resources to hire PR companies to connect with writers and others via social media. Those investors generally invest in the same type of chefs; those white, manly-men kinds. And those investments are creeping further and further uptown, along with renters looking for larger space at lower rates and colleges looking to buy property further and further up Broadway. So what is the Harlem that currently welcomes them, and what will it be five and ten years from now?

“Harlem embodies the vibrant culture of history,” City Councilwoman Inez Dickens began in her welcoming address. “It’s the center of black cultural revival and the diaspora. It’s become a home for many people now. It’s become a home away from home for many others. Harlem is, indeed, the center of creativity, intellectualism, artistry and musical inspiration in the world.”

Personally, I only know of a smattering of restaurants and places to go in Harlem. I should know more. There is “creativity, intellectualism, artistry and musical inspiration” seeping through the concrete and steel of the neighborhood. So how can businesses that have been around for decades and locals newly investing in their community make sure more people can find them? How can they compete with those large investors and those downtown behemoths? How can they collectively define what’s happening in Harlem, and share it in a way that is authentic to what’s happening in Harlem now?

According to several speakers, a large swath of 125th Street was rezoned in 2008 to encourage greater investment in the art and hospitality industries. But an oft-voice concern was about who will fill those buildings?  If a local theater can’t afford to move into a new home, will an offshoot of Lincoln Center come in, with it’s built in audience and marketing budget? If so, what will happen to institutions that have been around for decades, like the National Black Theatre, which has been at home on 125th Street and 5th Avenue for over 45 years now? There’s obviously no lack of culture in Harlem. But how can local businesses make it easier for people to find out what that culture is, and where and when they can partake in it?

Jonelle Procope, President and CEO of the iconic Apollo Theater, pointed out that “one person can’t do it all – we’re not a monolithic people or institution. How can we work with hospitality, culinary, culture and institutional marketing?” That, indeed, is why Harlem Park to Park was founded, with its initial nine involved small businesses exploding to now include eighty-three. On top of making sure their own businesses stay above water, several speakers pressed the importance of communicating the breadth of cultural opportunities in the area, and that means bonding together with what resources people already have.

But what about those already looking to connect? Yvette L. Campbell, President and CEO of the Harlem School of the Arts, said that getting foot traffic through the door is “all about service”. She challenged local arts organizations to take this seriously, using as an example how she changed the way they answer phones at the School to be more warm and welcoming, and a recent photo shoot for their new marketing materials, which made sure to capture the vibrant, creative energy of their students, inspiring others to come in and join.

While receiving his Pioneer of the Year award Leon Ellis, owner of Chocolat Restaurant Lounge and Moca, similarly spoke of business owners taking their service aspect seriously, pushing themselves to truly be competitive with what can be found downtown. Conversely, he asked attendees to go into “every black-owned business in the neighborhood, and not look past their shortcomings. Tell us what we’re doing wrong.” If eaters confront restaurateurs in respectful dialogue, he said, then significant improvements can be made.

The lack of direct conversation is a widespread problem in the food industry, where an angry diner is more likely to throw a negative “review” on Yelp than confront a chef or front-of-house staff member. More than a few times in my chef-interviewing past I’ve fielded cries of “just talk to me!!” from chefs to readers. But it’s even more dangerous for restaurants that don’t get reviewed or featured by major publications or blogs with wide audiences, and so maintaining a respectful, energetic and active dialogue with the public online is vital for moving these industries forward.

I sat on my computer throughout each panel, both taking notes and looking up the businesses of each person who spoke. I was looking to see what kind of energy or identity they had online, and if it matched the energy of the person in front of me. Restaurateur Sivan Baron Ouedraogo of Shrine, Silvana and Yatenga French Bistro, spoke animatedly about bringing culture to her restaurants beyond the jazz that outsiders most assume comes hand in hand with dining in Harlem. “Make it original and make it true; not just the same as any other thing in town,” she requested. She described the nights of music, tarot card readings and various offerings at her restaurants. Her capability and the value of what she offers was not in question at all in my mind as I listened. But as I perused her websites, did I see that same vitality on their Facebook or Twitter pages? Sadly, no.

As Christina Celuzza, the Marketing Manager of Harlem Business Alliance noted, young Millennials “do everything online, read everything online, and believe everything online.” On top of making sure what’s out there best represents the restaurant, she encouraged restaurateurs to expand their social media presence and to encourage dialogue. This will practically increase the foot traffic into their businesses and grow the presence of those businesses beyond Harlem’s walls, along with making sure that the identity of Harlem comes from the inside out.

The majority of what I took away from this conference was how local businesses want to bond together to move forward. How tour companies are making sure that their tours are run by locals, so that tourists aren’t stuck in the “Harlem is all about jazz and gospel” mentality that movies make it out to be. Many spoke about the seemingly endless possibilities of what Harlem can offer restaurateurs and others in the hospitality worlds; there’s a lot of beautiful real estate at more affordable prices than what can be pulled downtown and an audience at the ready to support them… if they hear about them to begin with.

That if is a big one.

In the Harlem Renaissance: Now panel, Shade Lythcott, CEO of the National Black Theater, challenged the audience that “Harlem is going to look different. But is it going to look like us?” She used the question to discuss increasing capacity; in having businesses strong in their own self-identity and a vision for what they want their community to look like. Then she presented an old African proverb: “If you know the beginning well, the end will not trouble you.”

There are big changes coming to Harlem, as made clear in discussion after discussion. But if Harlem can hardly financially sustain its own community now, what will that future look like? From Sade:

“We need to know what’s going on now so that we’re not talking about this as a blip in our culture ten years from now. Harlem will not be a black face to white institutions. Let’s know our beginning now so that the end doesn’t trouble us.”



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