On Edgecombe Avenue and West 139th Street, The Edge Harlem café presents a mash-up menu of British, American and Jamaican fare, including jerk chicken Caesar salad. Twenty blocks down, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 119th Street, Vinateria specializes in Italian and Spanish wine and cuisine. Nearby, there’s LoLo’s Seafood Shack for Caribbean-inspired food, Lido for Italian and Corner Social for pub fare. The Cecil just reopened as a steakhouse. And then there’s Sylvia’s, famous for its Southern comfort food.
A collection of so many thriving restaurants in a single neighborhood is hardly unusual here, especially in a community with 330,000 residents—more than Pittsburgh. But these spots—like a third of Harlem’s top eateries—are owned by women, mainly women of color from the neighborhood, who found a hospitable business environment and community of like-minded entrepreneurs. Elsewhere in the city, women own just 1 in 10 top restaurants, and male chefs continue to dominate the culinary landscape.
“They took the risk,” said Kaaryn Simmons, director of the Columbia-Harlem Small Business Development Center. “These women have gone out of their way to seek assistance to grow. They’re deliberate, focused on creating great businesses and committed to the community.”
Restaurants have been booming in Harlem for the past decade or so, thanks to a wealthier population moving in, a rich cultural history that attracts hungry tourists, a community that supports local businesses and boosterism by Top Chef winner Marcus Samuelsson, owner of Red Rooster.
By leading the boom, Harlem’s female restaurateurs are a preview of what the industry looks like with women at the helm. And their stories provide a glimpse of the barriers they must overcome not only to open but also to grow a business. That future is here: Nationally the number of women-owned restaurants outpaced overall restaurant growth from 2007 to 2012, jumping by 40% while the total number of restaurants increased by just 12%. In New York the amount of women-owned accommodation and food-services businesses soared by 45% between 2011 and 2016, according to the Center for an Urban Future, which sees the expansion of women-owned eateries as a way to bolster the city’s small-business ecosystem.
But the economic conditions that once greeted the Harlem crowd have tightened, suggesting that opportunities for female entrepreneurs are closing.
In 1901 Lillian Harris Dean, known as Pig Foot Mary, became Harlem’s first female culinary entrepreneur when she sold boiled pigs’ feet to fellow displaced black Southerners out of a baby carriage on 135th Street. Enough Mississippians were hungering for the snack that she was able to buy an apartment building in 1917.
Fifty years later, Sylvia Woods, who had worked as a waitress in the neighborhood, opened Sylvia’s. Her ribs and greens first drew locals but soon attracted downtowners and tourists who wanted to soak up some of Harlem’s renowned artistic energy. “As a market, Harlem has been driven by food,” said Nikoa Evans-Hendrick, executive director of Harlem Park to Park, a business membership organization to which many of the restaurants belong.
By 2005, after decades of crime and poverty had besieged Harlem, the neighborhood was again hungering for some good eats. With $300,000 she had been saving in her mattress, lifelong Harlem resident Melba Wilson opened Melba’s on West 114th Street, which she said was a notorious block for drugs.
“They call me the godmama,” she said. “It takes someone to start.”