Soul Food + Business = Nurturing Community

Reporting by Howie Borden and Eric Didier Bolton

Amiri Baraka introduced the phrase Soul Food in 1962 as his poetry became popular through his civil rights activism. Soul Food is rooted in bringing people together. It encourages the idea of community as recipes are often passed down from generation to generation often by word of mouth. Currently, many Harlem entrepreneurs have decided to incorporate traditional recipes (that have been shared in their families) in their menus and business strategies. Howie Borden reports from Elma’s in Harlem where owner James D. Brown (Jimmy) has incorporated his late grandmother’s food secrets into the menu at his eatery and juice bar.


Patrons enjoy lunch and share a conversation about the fresh juice ingredients at Elma’s. All images © 2017 HBorden.

As a child, Jimmy used to volunteer with his grandmother at the soup kitchens and homeless shelters where she spent her spare time. He also grew up watching her cook with homegrown herbs and spices that she picked from the garden outside of her apartment. When she passed in 2013, Jimmy found comfort in recreating her recipes. Elma’s is named after his grandmother.

Owner Jimmy stops for a quick portrait while making a delivery run. © 2017 DHirsch.

Another staple of soul food is the Southern-style buttermilk biscuit. Teddy Kehagias, 33, a Greek restauranteur, mastered the biscuit in his own kitchen in the Bronx, after falling in love with it on a trip to North Carolina. He’s now found the perfect home for the crumbly baked good: Morningside Coffee & Biscuits, a coffee shop he co-opened last April. Even Southerners are impressed by his biscuit sandwiches, which include “the Lenox”: fried chicken, caramelized onions, and crispy bacon packaged between two flaky biscuits.


Kehagias has experience in the restaurant industry, having previously run 3 separate food businesses. But as he felt the corporate side of business overtaking his life, he ended those ventures to fully dedicate himself to this latest passion project. His aim is to start a coffee shop that builds community around soul food. So far, it seems to be working; locals love it, and have
come in droves to gather in his unassuming yet cozy café.


At Elma’s in Harlem, adding soul food to an established business model — the juice bar — has also met apparent success. But it’s hasn’t been free of adversity. A car recently hit Mr. Brown while he was making bike deliveries for Elma’s, an accident that injured his shoulder. As a result, his mother, Carlene Brown, has been helping him out in the back.

Ms. Brown has been a great support for Elma’s in Harlem. Her encyclopedic knowledge of natural remedies has inspired the shop’s menu, and her experience in sales and marketing has benefited the business side.

Carlene Brown prepares the daily special for Aug. 22, the Rasta Pasta — that is, jerk
chicken on a bed of penne. The shop is normally bustling, but a rare break in customers allowed
Brown to turn her attention to meal prep. ©201 7 E. Bolton.

However, Ms. Brown insists that it’s only a temporary arrangement. She trusts her son’s ability to run and grow the business on his own, and she wants to move on to bigger goals. Ms. Brown is hoping to hone her baking talents at culinary school, with an eye towards someday starting a
business of her own.

Jimmy is also expanding his horizons. In addition to looking to grow his business, he’s developing his rapping abilities. He was even recently noticed by a music label and is working on a possible development deal. Storytelling through music forms a large part of Mr. Brown’s creative process.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Mr. Brown, his mother, or Mr. Kehagias. But they’ve all found that in the changing landscape of Harlem, fostering community around soul food is an effective means to fulfillment and success. In this video, Jimmy talks about his inspiration behind opening Elma’s & his love for his hometown.

It’s unclear what the future holds for Mr. Brown, his mother, or Mr. Kehagias. But they’ve all found that in the changing landscape of Harlem, fostering community around soul food is an effective means to fulfillment and success.

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