Pilsners, Pies and Prayers: Restaurants That Intercede for Communities

by Jennifer Kang and Jonathan G. Lee

Food is community. Sometimes, a restaurant can be more than a business. It can be an institution. The business owners we profiled for this piece use their platforms to do more than just serve food: they fulfill a need, they advocate a cause and they pray for their customers.

These are their stories.


Celeste Beatty, President of Harlem Brewing Company, holding a Dutch Oven used for hops. Photo by Jonathan G. Lee.

Celeste Beatty is the “Chief Brewing Officer” of the Harlem Brewing Company, a microbrewery based in Harlem. She came to Harlem in 1992, and she brought with her a love of nature and passion for history. A native of the Carolinas, Beatty grew up as a Future Farmer of America and worked on her grandparents’ farm picking tomatoes and tobacco.

When she arrived in Harlem, she cleaned out backyards, tilled soil, and planted seeds in the neighborhood’s first community gardens.

“I took a great deal of pride in that,” said Beatty. “Because people that were living in Harlem, born and raised in Harlem, came from those traditions.”

Beatty was referring to the Great Migration, when 6 million African American moved out of the rural South from 1916 to 1970 and settled in cities throughout the rest of the country. When those black folks came, they brought with them their rural traditions.

But Beatty is not only an advocate of preserving the land, but also of preserving culture. She explained how Seneca Village, a village founded by freed slaves in 1825 and destroyed in 1857 for the construction of Central Park, was excavated. During the excavation, archaeologists found old beer bottles.

“Beer is very soothing,” Beatty says. “It’s calming, so I feel that’s a great way to get people to listen to one another, solve problems, and connect.”

Through Airbnb Experience, Beatty also hosts brewing classes in her “brewdio” (her home microbrewery) to foster community building. She cites 2009 Beer Summit, when President Barack Obama hosted Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. of Harvard University and Sgt. James Crowley of the Cambridge Police Department. Gates was arrested by Cambridge Police for breaking into his own home, which sparked a national discussion on racial profiling.

The Harlem Renaissance Wit and Sugar Hill Ale pictured with a wreath of hops. Photo taken by Jennifer Kang.

“Beer is very soothing,” Beatty says. “It’s calming, so I feel that’s a great way to get people to listen to one another, solve problems, and connect.”

Beatty has been invited to speak about beer history at the Smithsonian Institute. She’s also spearheading the first Harlem Beer Festival. This fascination with history and preservation has exasperated her accountant, who advised her to stick with brewing to expand her business.

Beatty, however, feels a higher calling. To her, the Harlem Brewing Company has a greater mission to spread the “gospel of Harlem.”

“I hope one day that my brand can live up to the name Harlem,” said Beatty. “We’re trying. I don’t think we ever will, but to have that name and to have that banner on our brand, we have make sure that our focus is preserving the very place that inspired us to even be in existence.”


Lexis Dilligard, owner of Lady Lexis Kitchen (formerly known as Lady Lexis Sweets) was studying accounting at Baruch College four years ago. She was half-way done when she realized she wasn’t getting the creative outlet that she needed.

Lexis Dilligard, owner of Lady Lexis Kitchen. Photo by Jennifer Kang.

“I literally took a leap of faith and asked myself, ‘Well, what do I want to do?’ The answer came down to baking. Her mother, Sharon Gonzalez, suggested they start out by selling cookies in front of their home. Now, Lexis and Sharon have their own sweet shop and kitchen in East Harlem, selling natural-ingredient desserts as well as southern soul food.

Dilligard didn’t stop with desserts. What started out as a personal passion has now manifested into a community based business that caters to the residents of East Harlem. Recently, she expanded the business to include southern fare.

On the weekends, the mother and daughter duo hold community events like cook-outs and cupcake decorating classes. According to Lexis, no other sweet shop has opened in the vicinity. The last was Wimps Southern Style Bakery, which closed in 2008.

Dilligard and her mother, Sharon, began to cook their own lunch when they could not leave the shop unattended. The workers in the barber shop next door faced the same issue, and began to buy lunch from the sweet shop. Now, the Dilligards serve everything from fried fish and grits, Thai-inspired cod fish soup and dishes with a Puerto Rican twist.

On the weekends, the mother and daughter duo hold community events like cook-outs and cupcake decorating classes. According to Lexis, no other sweet shop has opened in the vicinity. The last was Wimps Southern Style Bakery, which closed in 2008.

Lexis wanted to remind residents that they can still visit neighborhood shops down the block or downstairs.

“That’s why we’re pushing for these events,” said Dilligard. “So that when they come, they know that they have somewhere to come on the weekend. They know there’s something going on in the weekend and they don’t have to go outside of the neighborhood just to have fun.”


Chang Hee Chae came to the Bronx in 2001. Before she came to the neighborhood with her husband, their local church in South Korea threw them a going away party. Chae’s pastor prayed over them and declared that great blessings awaited them in the United States. The Chaes left Korea dreaming of wealth and comfort.

Instead, what Chae saw from her donut shop in Concourse was suffering.

“The neighborhood was very rough,” said Chae in Korean. “I’ve watched police come into my shop and arrest children. Three people were shot around my store. There were drugs everywhere.”

The Chaes barely spoke English. They couldn’t communicate with police and they had no local trade union to fall back on. So, they invited a pastor and met with another local Korean storeowner to pray for the neighborhood.

When Chae first arrived to this country, she was hurt and confused. She and her husband were struggling to make ends meet and had yet to receive the blessings her pastor promised. But as she prayed, she her perspective began to change.

“Prayer works,” Chae said in Korean. “I saw my block changing in front of my eyes. There were less drug addicts. I saw more children laughing in my store. And our neighborhood came to respect us.”

Word got around about Chae’s prayers. During her time in the Bronx, she also helped organize Christmas carols and even put up a community Christmas tree.

“God’s business is about giving people what they need. I love my customers, I laugh with my customers and I feed my customers. That’s what I believe.”

Since then, Chae has sold the donut shop and now owns a Caffe Bene in Washington Heights. Caffe Bene, a Korean chain of cafes, has been in rapid decline worldwide. In the past two years, the Caffe Bene shops in St. Mark’s and Bayside have closed down.

Chae’s location, however, is still going strong. One of Chae’s customers, Kyoung Joo Kim of NY Radio Korea, says this is because of Chae’s love of community.

“This is a cafe for the community. Look over here,” said Kim, gesturing to the numerous power strips on the bar. “They encourage customers to stay and work here. To socialize.”

As for blessings, Chae has finally found it. She’s still not wealthy. Business is going well, but not booming. What she found instead was a change of perspective.

“I started this business wanting to go down one road,” said Chae in Korean. “God led me down another. He gave me this business, and God’s business is not about making money. God’s business is about giving people what they need. I love my customers, I laugh with my customers and I feed my customers. That’s what I believe.”