So how did Harlem Shake happen?
I was going through a divorce right around the time of the financial crisis around 2009 and 2010. I was a young mother with two children and felt alone. All my friends were actually my ex-husbands friends. So I decided to try something and it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I knew then I could do anything. I felt at home. My friend Elliston who was a small investor connected me to this location. Back at that time Red Rooster was doing well and Corner Social had just opened. I knew that this stretch of Lenox was going to do well. We also had Native at the time. So when I saw how well they were doing and Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster was a celebrity chef. I had Elliston connect me with the landlord Mr. Edwards. Dard Coaxum introduced me to Dennis Decker who would become our interior designer and immediately started thinking about design. Emil Radonic and then Dardra Coaxum came on board. Then it became about how do we celebrate the Harlem culture. So that the people of Harlem can actually enjoy the space with offerings that made sense financially. It was decided to do burgers. With young kids I didn’t want it to have liquor I knew I couldn’t handle that. A place for a quick bite, a daytime business that didn’t have super late night hours. There was no good burger place at the time. Shake Shack was all the rage at the time. I was like we could something like that except Harlem Shake Shack. Then Elliston was like it should be called Harlem Shake. I was like that sounds great and I trademarked the name immediately. I was like who could do the menu that was going to be attractive and I found out Kenji lived on 131st in Lenox Terrace. Kenji was already famous. He writes for New York Times. He grew up in Harlem and said he would love to. We then started doing milk Shake tastings at Dennis house. This was all coming about as we were building in 2012. Dardra was really young at that time still in college. She grew into her own. And that’s how we started. There was this meme one day and Kenji called me and said, “You have 20 thousand likes on Facebook!” And we did even have our storefront yet. There was this meme, “Do the Harlem Shake.” That helped us so much with brand recognition before we even opened.
Dardra tell us about your life in Harlem?
My life in Harlem changed as Harlem changed. Just like everyone has phases. I think Harlem has had different phases as well. So my lifestyle now is nothing like what it was like as a child. I was born in Harlem. I’m originally from Esplanade Gardens which is on 142nd street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue. It’s a little further uptown. I’m now below 125th street and live in a brownstone. Esplanade is a community made up of six buildings where at one time very prominent Black people lived. There were doctors and lawyers. And my mothers father lived there and he left her the apartment. She inherited the apartment but once she lived there and I was born, it all changed. It got a little more dangerous in New York City and in Harlem. So when I was growing up the only thing I was allowed to do was go to school and come home. I was not allowed to play outside. When the street lights came on you had to be in the house. You go to school, come home and that’s it. I didn’t really get know to much about Harlem until I hung out with my dad, Dard. My dad and my mom had me when they were very young. My dad is an outside guy. He’s on this block, that block. When I was with my dad I was really exposed to Harlem. I got to play with the kids on his block over on Manhattan avenue. I wasn’t allowed to go to school in Harlem because the schools uptown weren’t as good as the schools downtown. When I went to those schools downtown we lied. My mom had to use her work address as our home address because I didn’t live in that zone. I wasn’t technically supposed to go to those downtown schools. When you look at Harlem now with these nice coffee shops, walking down Lenox can be very pleasant nowadays. That was why it really important for me to become apart of Harlem Shake. I didn’t have any desire to get into the restaurant business. But what I did want to get into the business of was contributing to Harlem. Finding another way to make that walk up Lenox more pleasant. Because it wasn’t always pleasant.
So how did you get into Harlem Shake?
So my dad Dard Coaxum is an entrepreneur or hustler as we call him. He has his hand in any pot that may be lucrative. He told me he was going to be working with Jelena on this new project and he had to go out of town. I was in college and was on spring break visiting at the time. I’m not sure if it was the sidewalk or the wine and beer license but we had a Community board meeting where they had to approve it first. My dad was like we need a representative from Harlem and we need you to go to this meeting. I’m like, “I don’t know about a restaurant business, a sidewalk. What are you taking about?” He’s like you’ll be fine. He literally tells me an hour before the meeting where I meet Jelena for the first time. Me and Jelena knocked it out the park. Jelena and I fed off each others energy really well. I felt from my meeting with her she was someone I could learn alot from. I was in school for advertising and marketing. But I was over school and over being in Ohio. She invited me to be apart of the project. My first thought was no. I didn’t tell her this. I was going to do other things. But when I thought about it again and you have an opportunity like that you don’t pass it up. You take it and learn from it. You give back to your community with it.