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Cooking up a Harlem business. Calvin Copeland has seen it all -- a closed door at the bank, a fire, a fast-food invasion -- and he'd do it all again

By Kristin HelmoreStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 23, 1986



New York

CALVIN COPELAND has been cooking since he was 10 years old. First it was for his six brothers and sisters back in Smithfield, Va., after their parents died. Now it's in an executive chef's capacity, for an elegant clientele who come to his restaurant here to enjoy what is generally considered the best food in Harlem.

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In a neighborhood characterized by dilapidated tenements, boarded-up, out-of-business stores, and fast-food franchises, restaurants like Copeland's are a rarity -- and the challenges to their success are many.

But it's those very challenges that Mr. Copeland finds irresistible.

``To be honest with you,'' he said in a recent interview, ``if I had to start a business again -- especially a restaurant -- I would do it in Harlem, again. My conception has always been that first of all you look around the neighborhood and see what people need. If you find what they need and do a good job at it, I feel that you'll be successful.''

It's apparent from the atmosphere, the service, and the food at Copeland's that he follows his own advice.

The d'ecor is stylish, yet understated and serene. The lighting and the music are restful. Comfortably upholstered banquettes line the walls, and modern paintings in muted colors hang above them.

The patrons are elegant. Local businessmen, impeccable in three-piece suits, belie the stereotype of a down-and-out Harlem. Attractive women arrive wearing hats and white gloves, and small children sitting with their families are as good as gold. And the food is excellent. Copeland's specializes in such ``soul food'' favorites as smothered chicken (fried chicken with gravy baked in the oven), collard greens, and candied yams.

One cannot help wondering why there are not more restaurants like Copeland's in Harlem.

``As you know,'' says Copeland, ``blacks have been having a problem getting money in any way, especially in a new endeavor. First of all, you don't have a track record. Restaurants do close. I had a consultant -- this is a white consultant -- he doesn't know why, but all black `soul food' businesses usually fold. He couldn't understand it, but I knew the answer.

``The answer was, first of all, that the majority of blacks that go into the restaurant business are not equipped. They're not educated in the restaurant field. The second thing is that they do not have the financial backing they should have.''

Success itself can present another obstacle, in cases where enterprising business people with little experience are overwhelmed by the sudden demands of managing a successful enterprise.

``The restaurant business is a very demanding business,'' Copeland says. ``You've got to spend a lot of time with it. And usually -- I hate to say it -- but usually folks make a few dollars, and if they're not too used to it, first thing you know they'll get themselves a nice car and they're gone. They leave the business on its own so someone else'll run it for them and that's the way they lose it all. I've seen this happen more than one time. But you have to stick with the restaurant business. It takes six, seven days a week.''

Calvin Copeland started cooking professionally at age 13. ``The reason for that,'' he recalls, ``is that I could not stand the cold weather outside. I got a job in a kitchen to keep warm, and I've been in a kitchen ever since.''

When he was 20, he set out for California. ``I don't really know what I was looking for,'' he muses. ``After I lost my parents, it was a very sad time in my life. I guess I just had to find a smile somewhere.