The lunch crowd is steadily growing on a recent weekday at Manna’s Soul Food on Eighth Avenue in Harlem, patrons stuffing Styrofoam containers with fried chicken, mashed potatoes and collard greens. It’s a bitterly cold day, but the heat from the 50 or so trays in Manna’s food bar fogs the storefront windows.
A familiar song fills the restaurant, one instantly recognizable for fans of Jay-Z, the Notorious B.I.G. or Tupac Shakur, all of whom have sampled it. But this is the original track: The Isley Brothers’ 1983 soul slow-burner, “Between the Sheets.”
It’s a somewhat surprising atmosphere, given Manna’s owner: Betty Park, a 57-year-old Korean immigrant who has battled racial discord, Harlem’s gentrification, the lingering recession and, recently, squabbles with a major developer, to open seven Manna’s locations, four in Harlem.
“A Korean woman opening a soul food restaurant—people laugh at you,” says Park, a tiny woman with a bright face and an affinity for equally bright clothes—today , a vivid pink sweater, in sharp contrast to her employees’ white uniforms. She is taking a break from her usual circuit, rushing between the restaurant’s cash register, storage room and kitchen, where she will soon help a cook perfect a batch of clam chowder.
“People said, ‘What do you know about soul food?’” she continues. “Now they don’t even ask me. They come here for the soul food.”
The first Manna’s location, named for the Biblical reference to food falling from the sky, opened in 1983 to scoffs; the most recent opened in 2008, at the height of a national recession that particularly decimated upper Manhattan. Known for its food bar of southern-style dishes—$5.49 per pound—Manna’s has not only survived, but expanded, even as economic factors, plus a national focus on nutrition, have torpedoed several longtime competitors.
Harlem’s soul food restaurants are among the major remaining preserves of African-American culture in a neighborhood giving way to a younger generation and increasing gentrification. Yet over the past decade, more than 10 local soul food restaurants have closed, including such landmarks such as Copeland’s, closed in 2007 after 50 years on 145th Street, and Charles’ Southern Style Kitchen and Louise’s Family Restaurant, both shuttered in 2008 after long runs on Lenox Avenue near West 125th Street. Even Amy Ruth’s, which opened to wide acclaim 12 years ago on West 116th Street, filed for bankruptcy last year but remains open.
“Most restaurants are defeatist,” says Londel Davis, owner of Londel’s, which has served upscale comfort food on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 140th Street for 16 years. Davis says many soul food restaurants are reluctant to adapt to Harlem’s changing demographics, marked by an influx of Hispanics, whites and food tourists from downtown. “They are closing because of their own shortcomings.” Londel’s redesigned its bar and dining room to attract a changing clientele, but Davis says business has fallen 25 percent in recent years, nonetheless.
“I want to see the neighborhood go up and not stay the same,” says David Taylor, general manager of Jacob Restaurant, known for its beef short ribs and macaroni and cheese. It opened five months ago on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near West 143th Street, joining an existing location on Lenox Avenue near West 129th Street. But gentrification “has ruined a lot of small businesses,” he says.
Manna’s is far from invincible itself. In the 1980s, it cost $50,000 to open a restaurant; now it costs about $250,000, Park says. She’s avoided lay-offs but has reduced hours for many of the 60 employees at Manna’s Harlem locations.
“I’m concerned if I’m going to make it,” Park confesses. She doesn’t always: The upscale seafood restaurant she opened on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in 2007, just before the financial meltdown, closed within a year.
Making matters worse, Manna’s top-performing location on 125th Street near Frederick Douglass was forced to move because of a planned development project. In 2008, Manna’s and four other tenants were evicted to make way for Kimco Realty Corporation’s planned retail center; construction is expected to begin soon. The tenants sued Kimco and eventually settled for $1 million.
Then the project stalled and, to Park’s surprise, Kimco asked Manna’s to reopen in the same space earlier this summer. By September, as Kimco readied for construction, that location had closed again and reopened around the corner at Frederick Douglass and 126th Street.
“It’s like David and Goliath,” says that restaurant’s manager, Tony Kamosi. “It’s corporate America; they don’t care about the little guy.”
Park is kinder toward Kimco; she feels the $300,000 Kimco provided for relocation costs is sufficient. But without a prime location on Harlem’s main street, business has dropped, Park says. The new eatery location closed briefly in November because of problems with a gas line. Now, some tables remain empty at lunchtimes when the place used to be packed
Kimco representatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Park seems to thrive on adversity, however. She came to America in 1974 “for a better life,” she says, and worked at a family-run fish market in 1984 amid a lengthy and contentious boycott of several Korean establishments by African Americans claiming unfair hiring practices.
“I thought, You know what? I have to have black employees to survive in this community,” she says. So in 1985 she opened her first small restaurant in a 300-square-foot basement on West 125th Street along with a black chef from North Carolina, whom she had met through the fish market and who taught her southern cooking.
Now, both her employees and customers are almost exclusively minorities and Park is considered a staple of the business community, though she lives in New Jersey. At Thanksgiving, Park donated 100 turkeys to needy Harlem families and has sponsored YMCA afterschool programs.
“When you come into the community, you have to look at the needs,” says Theresa Freeman, a Manna’s regular, over a pungent serving of chitlins. “That’s just a good business model.”
Park sees some similarities between Korean and southern cooking. Korean cuisine uses pigs’ feet and oxtails, traditional soul food staples, and like some southern styles, tends to be spicy. But Park says customers are becoming less interested in those traditional yet adventurous soul food dishes, instead opting for mainstays like fried chicken, short ribs and mashed potatoes. “A lot of people don’t want to eat it,” she says of her chitlins—pig intestines cooked with liberal amounts of vinegar and hot peppers. “Especially the younger generation, because it stinks.”
Soul food restaurants have also been hit hard by a national focus on nutrition and health. Londel’s longtime corn bread recipe—heavy on milk, butter and sugar—now calls for more moderate amounts of those ingredients, Davis says. Cooking with seasoned meats like pork has yielded to sautéing and broiling. “We need to get away from cooking so old-fashioned,” he argues.
Park disagrees, and still cooks her collard greens in turkey gravy and her stuffing with chicken. She touts the extended salad and fruit bar, but acknowledges that her customers aren’t coming in for cantaloupe.
Whatever the economic conditions, Park hopes her relationship with customers allows Manna’s to survive, like the landmark Harlem soul food restaurant Sylvia’s, which opened in 1962 and is now a tourist attraction that sells its products in supermarkets.
On this day, Park stops midsentence after hearing some loose change drop behind her. She quickly gets up to help a middle-aged woman and by the time their brief encounter has ended, she’s learned that the woman is a schoolteacher. Then she jets back to the conversation she’s suspended.
Trying to locate Park, even in Manna’s modest storefront, often proves difficult. At a moment’s notice she might be filling in at the cash register, holding court with a regular like Freeman, unpacking flour in the basement, lugging a pan of mashed potatoes to the food bar, or consulting with a cook over the proper spices for clam chowder.
Someday she’d like to open a more upscale Manna’s or add a takeout window to the restaurants. But for now, she has no plans to open any additional branches, only a dedication to ensuring the existing ones survive.
“Everybody in their life has bad turns,” she says. “But it gets better.”