A seat at the table

A seat at the table

Cara Eisenpress


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.

Well-trod path

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.”


From the beginning, Wilson’s surprised accountant would call each quarter and say, “You’re looking really good.” The popularity transformed Melba’s into a profitable business by year two, and this year she was able to expand in order to seat more than 100 diners. Rent was originally $2,500 a month but has gone up considerably, Wilson said.

Melba’s sells fried chicken and waffles at affordable prices. And Wilson taps in to the demand of a neighborhood underserved by eateries. “There are just not as many restaurants per square foot in Harlem as in other parts of the city,” said Herb Karlitz, an event marketer who organizes the annual Harlem EatUp festival. For first-time restaurateurs, uptown was a place where “they think, Maybe I stand a fighting chance.”

Sisters Juliet and Justine Masters, a chef and a real estate broker, respectively, had a similar thought in 2014. If they could build a place where they wanted to eat themselves, others would come too. Three years ago they decided to open The Edge Harlem. It sits on a residential block far north of the strips on Lenox Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, where several restaurants had followed Melba’s path to success.

“The building we’re located in has 90 apartments,” said Juliet Masters. “Even if we just feed the people in this building, we’ll do OK,” she recalled their thinking at the time. “It was this intuitive thing: If we put something here that is good quality, we’ll get the residents.”

Many more than 90 households now go to The Edge. Lines at brunch can wind around the block. Diners come from all over the city and beyond.

Community support

To build the 1,300-square-foot reclaimed wood–lined restaurant, the Masters sisters first raised $100,000 before realizing they’d need at least double that, still less than the $500,000 most experts say it takes to start a café downtown. A $25,000 loan from Chase bought half the equipment; money from their savings, their parents and two private investors completed the financing. It took a year from lease signing to opening day, but the landlord allowed them to defer the first year’s rent payments. 

At first The Edge sold only coffee and pastries; brunch and dinner came later—once the gas was installed. Even with the slow rollout, they made money from the get-go. “The landscape is ripe for new businesses to come in and do well,” said Justine Masters. “It’s different from trying to do this downtown, where the overhead is so high. This neighborhood needs amenities.”

Bringing those amenities was an intentional process. By the end of the 2000s, business and community leaders had come together to ensure that residents would benefit from redevelopment. The Columbia Community Business Program, Harlem Park to Park and the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance had formed to provide education and expertise to new businesses, some in an academic setting. With their assistance, entrepreneurs without previous hospitality experience were able to think through their plans thoroughly. Still, loans and investment weren’t available to most—a problem common to new business owners. Women have a particularly hard time accessing cash. In New York in 2014, female entrepreneurs received just 12% of the total dollars lent. 

Wilson and others relied on their savings or equity from their homes to open their restaurants. It wasn’t until about a decade after Wilson opened Melba’s that she received a loan to expand the restaurant. The task was surprisingly difficult. “The bank I was dealing with at the time wanted me to put in my lease as collateral,” she said. “I was bringing in $1 million on a yearly basis. That was insane.” She borrowed money from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone and Carver Federal Savings Bank, a community bank, instead.

Leticia Skai Young, who grew up in Harlem, moved back to the neighborhood after selling her home in Williamsburg. She had worked her way up in hospitality management to opening restaurants for a big organization. And she had married an executive chef with experience at Union Square’s The Coffee Shop. So when she followed her gut and decided to undertake a passion project, which became LoLo’s Seafood Shack, she and her husband, Raymond Mohan, were ready.

They took inspiration for the food and the decor from both New England and the Caribbean and named the spot in tribute to the locally owned, locally operated seaside shacks in St. Martin. They opened in winter 2014. “I really find that it’s a way to express ourselves creatively,” Young said of running her 1,000-square-foot eatery, which includes a backyard beach shack. Sales grew 50% the second year and about 35% in the third.

Just as the inspiration came from within, so did the funding. Young and her husband were able to buy a brownstone and sign a lease for the restaurant on the proceeds of their Brooklyn home sale. But a network in the community was crucial for providing the mentorship and academic support that have turned LoLo’s into a mainstay. 

Young is in her second year at the Columbia Community Business Program, which has helped her focus on building a lean but stable enterprise and maximizing growth, she said.

Other forms of mentorship are less formal. “I don’t feel the sort of one-upmanship competition that you feel in other neighborhoods,” said Yvette Leeper-Bueno, owner of Vinateria and vice president of the Frederick Douglass Boulevard Alliance. “I know the names and have the numbers of so many businesses in the neighborhood. I can call people on the phone and ask them ‘So who do you use for linen?’ and so on.” 

Adding to that sense of community is that many of the women are from the neighborhood. “Since I lived here, I felt like I was opening in a neighborhood that wanted us to succeed,” said Leeper-Bueno. She signed “one of the longer leases” for Vinateria’s 1,300-square-foot corner space, she said—which has given her the ability to pace her growth.

Wilson said she has always had two goals at Melba’s: to cook great food and to serve the people living around her.

“Part of it was to show people—kids from my neighborhood—that you can come from Harlem, from the inner city, and own your own business and employ kids from your community,” she said. “We have always kept prices affordable for the neighborhood.” Dozens of locals work at the restaurants.

But the economic accessibility for new businesses may not last. “The rents are crazy,” said Columbia-Harlem’s Simmons. “We don’t have as many clients saying, ‘I want to open a restaurant in Harlem.’ They were priced out two to three years ago.” It’s one thing to take a risk on a new business; it’s another thing to jump in for $10,000 in monthly rent when you simply can’t sell that many waffles.

The average asking rent in the busy 125th Street corridor rose to $140 per square foot in 2015 before sinking to $123 last fall, according to the Real Estate Board of New York. That would amount to 20% of sales for a 1,600-square-foot restaurant doing $1 million a year. On less-trafficked streets, rents are lower; a 1,000-square-foot corner spot on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and West 118th Street is listed for $57 per square foot by John McGuinness, an agent at Compass. 

“Rents have doubled,” he said, “but they’re still half of anything below 96th Street.” 

Today’s rents might deter newcomers, but the first wave of Harlem’s female restaurateurs sometimes found enough early success to consider branching out. Anahi Angelone opened the bar Corner Social in 2012 after managing Irish bars downtown for a decade. Two years later Corner Social was so successful that she opened a restaurant, Angel of Harlem. Both are profitable. In the summer she and her partners, including former Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons, took over The Cecil Steakhouse as well as Minton’s Playhouse, the adjoining restaurant and venue that had closed in 2016. Angelone ascribes her drive to the neighborhood itself. 

“The reason I do what I do is Harlem,” she said. 
“I love this community.”