Harlem’s reputation precedes itself. It’s a largely African-American community in upper Manhattan known for its renaissance. How many places do you know that have a renaissance? Rich in history, rich in culture. It was home to some of the finest artists, musicians, politicians, civil rights leaders, and people this country has to offer.
The neighborhood has changed, but it remains a place where you can move and shake. From the Apollo Theater, Lenox Ave, St. Nick, and Sugar Hill, Harlem has an energy that is completely different from the rest of New York City. As the saying goes, Manhattan keeps on makin’ it. Harlem Shake, a burger joint on the corner of 124th and Lenox (or Malcolm X Blvd depending on when you grew up), Harlem Shake is easily identifiable with its Green and Cream awnings, photographs of celebrities inside, and old school diner feel. We met up with Jelena and Dardra, two of the owners of Harlem Shake, to discuss Harlem roots, a bit of soccer, and more.
Tommie: Let's start with how Harlem Shake came to be. Where did the original idea come from? How long have you been in business?
Jelena: So we've been in business for eight years. We opened on May 13 2013. The original idea of Harlem shake came about when I started visiting Harlem in the mid 2000s, I just remember I met a lot of friends and started falling in love with the architecture and cultural heritage of Harlem. And also when people were just kind of reminded me of Croatia a little bit because it's more of a small town feel it's more hanging out with friends. I felt that the neighborhood is coming to the point where things will just explode and there's gonna be a lot of people moving in. So in 2011, I divorced my husband, and we had a business together. I wanted to venture out on my own, then my friend introduced me to this location.
Tommie: Tell me about the look of Harlem Shake, it’s very distinct and old fashioned:
Jelena: Dardra recommended Dennis Decker, who is a cultural preservation genius. He was the brand director for some of the major cosmetics brands and he was living in Harlem since 1991, and a lot of this creative stuff behind the looks of Harlem Shake was him. And then I partnered up with my partner Emerald, Dardra became a partner through her dad, and at that time, we started creating it all together. A lot of these ideas came from some experiences that were example direct and thoughtful and growing up in Harlem, and the places that were disappearing.
Dardra: So when Yelena and I first met, and she was talking up this design to me, one of the places that I brought up was a place that I used to frequent with my grandmother called Pan Pan, which used to be on 135 and Lenox. So Pan Pan for me was a really memorable place. And it had these little diner tools very similar to ours and had these juice stands very similar to ours. So it has that old school diner feel of that feeling where you just walk in and you get a coffee with your grandmother, or you get a burger or a milkshake or fries. So we wanted something that felt like that, homey, comfortable, relatable.
Tommie: Was that the original, like, concept or idea? Or did you entertain other types of cuisine?
Jelena: Before we even started designing the place, I was very pragmatic, in terms of what to see, because I realized that Harlem didn't have a burger place. I really didn't want to have a late night bar thing because I knew I had to be there for my daughter as a single mom. It was let's have a fast casual place so I can be home at around seven because you know when you open the restaurant you have to get married to the crazy hours and I couldn't pull that off, so burgers is kind of a safe bet.
Jelena: There were also other places that I used to love when I was visiting, almost as a tourist to Harlem, like Lenox Lounge.
Dardra: Louise's was another diner on Lenox, that was very similar. Very old school Harlem. Classic.
Jelena: If you were in Europe, those places would be landmarks and they would never perish. Exactly, but unfortunately, you know, this country doesn't have those protections. And that was so sad, Lenox Lounge closed on December 31 2012 when we were building out, and I took a walk for New Year's to celebrate, we'll see, and I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw that they were closing. I remember crying. It was more of a sign to me that we need to put an emphasis on cultural preservation.
Tommie: So clearly the history of Harlem was something that meant a lot to you when building Harlem Shake:
Jelena: Every building in New York and if it's built before 1940 has a photo in stock so 1949-1967 there has to be a photo of the building so we got both those photos and in 1940 there was a restaurant here.The ceiling is original. When we demolished we found unglazed tiles that we duplicated, and the original colors of the building were green and cream just like they are today.
Tommie: How did the neighborhood welcome Harlem Shake?
Dardra: Well, from what I could see, it's been a pretty welcoming, a pretty welcoming experience. And I think part of what pays to that is we always hire locally, we hire locally, most of our staff is from Harlem, or from the Uptown or Bronx area. And we also have a contest, which is a Mr.Harlem Shake contest each year, which helps get our community involved as well. So when you answer to be Miss Harlem Shake, you win free burgers for a year, you win $1,000, cash and $500 to your charity of choice. So it's a way for our community to get involved with us in a way for us to give back as well as a way for us to really just be involved in each other's lives. They've been supportive, especially during the pandemic, and it's been a lot of our loyal customers that have been keeping us alive and keeping us open. The customers that come in know our staff by name. Our staff knows them by name, and they know their orders. So I would say it's pretty good.
Jelena: On the first day we opened there was a line around the block. It was scary in a good way. Before the pandemic, like I said, I think a lot of places closed down. We never closed the door for one day, and the community helped us get through it. I think our recognition of those returning customers and always trying to give them a little extra personal touch. So our business was really brisk and we were very fortunate in 2020. We never lost revenue, and that was sort of like a proof of our popularity or our already being becoming like a neighborhood staple after seven years.
Tommie: What's your relationship with sports and particularly with soccer coming from Croatia?
Jelena: laughs That's my favorite sport! We were always random like checkerboard clothing and we're sitting in front of TV, we're not moving and in 1998 we were in third place I think two or three years ago second place. So we're very proud of that. Definitely soccer was a requirement of my childhood, going on Sundays with my groups of friends when I was younger. They’d sneak in their torches (flares) and we’d coordinate songs and it was incredible.
Tommie: Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Jelena: During COVID we started preparing for expansion. So perhaps you will find us in a neighborhood near you very soon!