Undercapitalized and Under Siege: Harlem’s Black Restaurateurs Fight To Survive COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, much of Harlem’s restaurant scene was booming. But not everyone was sharing in the spoils.

Despite the neighborhood’s reputation as a fast-growing culinary hotspot, Harlem’s Black restaurateurs have been struggling to keep their businesses alive for some time. Now, the pandemic threatens to set them back even further.

“We have been one of the few Black-owned restaurants in Harlem that has been operating, in one form or the other, continuously, for 30 years,” says Leon Ellis, owner of Chocolat Restaurant & Bar on Frederick Douglass Boulevard. “We’ve seen things come and go, we’ve seen things change… but this experience is unlike anything that we’ve ever faced.”

Black-owned Harlem mainstay Melba’s attracts diners during Restaurant Open Streets.

Angie Hancock, who maintains a guide to Black-owned restaurants on her website, Experience Harlem, says the disruption of COVID-19 is just the latest domino. “Harlem was already a challenging market, given the shift in economics that had been happening here.”

The “shift in economics” to which Hancock refers is gentrification, which has raised rents across Harlem. According to a Real Estate Board of New York 2019 report, average asking rent for ground floor retail on Harlem’s flagship thoroughfare, 125th Street between 5th and Morningside Avenues, jumped 20 percent from 2016 to 2019.

“In terms of 125th Street, there are no mom and pop restaurants along there, only major retailers” says Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation. “People say, ‘Well, why is that?’ Well, because the rent is so damn high, that’s why.”

The street currently features a Shake Shack, a Red Lobster, and an Olive Garden, among other outlets. And though Harlem-specific data is hard to come by, citywide statistics suggest that Black restaurant owners have struggled to gain a foothold.

In August, the city’s Department Of Small Business Services released a report which concluded that “Black entrepreneurs face enormous barriers and are vastly underrepresented among New York City’s business owners.” It found that while Black residents are 22 percent of New York City’s population, only “2 percent of NYC businesses are owned by Black entrepreneurs.”

Much of the data was collected in 2019, before the pandemic, and the situation is now worse. The same report cited a Federal Reserve Bank Of New York study which found that by August, the pandemic had led to a 70 percent decline in Black business ownership in New York State.

“The challenge for the Black-owned businesses with the pandemic is there were already pre-existing conditions,” says Black restaurateur Nikoa Evans-Hendricks. She works with dozens of Harlem restaurants and other small businesses as executive director of local business development organization Harlem Park To Park, and says her group’s members are facing unprecedented uncertainty. “You’ve got hundreds of restaurant owners who have businesses that they’ve invested their life savings in. … Most small-business owners are typically financing their businesses out of their personal savings, friends and family. They’ve taken on debt. …They have been severely limited in their capacity to generate revenue.”

Evans-Hendricks says the top challenge is access to capital, which has tightened further due to COVID. “These businesses open from the very beginning undercapitalized,” she notes.  

And, many of Harlem’s Black entrepreneurs say they are concerned less with their businesses and more with the community. “The restaurants, a lot of them became community kitchens,” Evans-Hendricks says. “We had so many people in this community that just needed to eat.”

According to a November 2019 study by the Robin Hood Foundation and the Columbia Population Research Center, Harlem neighborhoods had pre-pandemic rates of food hardship between 39 percent and 49 percent, the highest in Manhattan.  

Black-owned BLVD Bistro on Frederick Douglass Boulevard.

Despite their struggles, Harlem’s Black-owned restaurants worked to keep COVID-19 from deepening the hunger problem. Early in the pandemic, local mainstay Sylvia’s started a program called “Sylvia’s Feeds,” serving a “Sunday Supper Pantry” for those in need. In May, celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who owns Harlem’s Red Rooster restaurant, told Forbes he was temporarily turning his Harlem EatUp! Festival into a community kitchen that has since served over 10,000 meals.

Officials are taking steps to help restaurants. Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed the city’s restaurants to reopen for indoor dining at 25 percent capacity as of Sept. 30. Mayor Bill de Blasio recently  announced that outdoor dining would be allowed to continue indefinitely, and the City Council recently approved a 10 percent surcharge that restaurants may levy on customers.

Restaurant owners, in turn, keep trying new ways to stay open in unprecedented times. Evans-Hendricks, who is a managing partner of Ruby’s Vintage Kitchen + Bar on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard, says she is reviving a defunct fast-casual brand in her portfolio, Sexy Taco, for a delivery and takeout pop-up in the Ruby’s space. Chocolat’s Ellis says he is “looking for an opening” to reopen his other property on the same block, Moca Bar and Lounge, which has been shuttered for months due to capacity restrictions.

Susannah Koteen, owner of Italian restaurant Lido on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, worries that this might not be enough, and that what she sees as the government’s unwillingness to listen to owners has hampered efforts. Koteen, who is white, says some politicians gave the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance, of which she is co-president, “a hard time” over the local Restaurant Open Streets program. The project is designed to allow the boulevard, from 112th to 120th streets, to be free of traffic on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays until the end of October.

Still, some are optimistic. “Harlem, there’s a resiliency here,” says Evans-Hendricks. “So as much as we’re dealing with challenging times, there’s still a spirit of promise and hope and rebirth. We don’t want to just survive, right? We want to thrive.”