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

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.

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.

``I said, `I'll come to New York, and stay maybe six months, and then go to California.'' That was in 1945. ``Six months hasn't come up yet,'' Copeland chuckles. ``I'm still in New York.''

During his early years here, Copeland worked as a chef at Jim Downey's Steakhouse in midtown Manhattan. But he lived in Harlem, and he couldn't help noticing that in this historic black community good restaurants and other high-quality food businesses were in short supply. He began to dream of someday running a restaurant of his own.

The first step came in 1961. With only $750 he opened the Reliable Catering Service on 148th Street and Broadway, just a few blocks from his present location.

``I had a little storefront,'' says Copeland, ``about the size of somebody's living room. I catered parties in people's houses or in clubs, but I didn't have any place for people to sit down to eat.

``It took a couple of years -- maybe longer than that -- to show any profit. Everything you got, you had to turn back in [to the business]. I really didn't have any money, and there was no means of getting any. Banks didn't let me have any money until I was in business maybe seven or eight years.''

In the 10th year, 1971, while keeping the catering business going, he opened a small eatery on 145th Street -- a wide, busy thoroughfare in north-central Harlem. But the sailing wasn't smooth yet.

``What we did was open a place that was like a McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken combination,'' Copeland recalls.

``We were doing pretty nicely, and then McDonald's decided they were going to move in on the corner. That means we lost all the hamburger business -- no kids would come in to us because McDonald's was on TV. They had publicity, we didn't have it.''

Copeland's solution was to switch gears completely and offer Southern-style food in a cafeteria-style setting. No question about it: Copeland's cafeteria was (and still is) a success. Then, in 1981, the store next door became available, and his dream of owning a restaurant came true -- until it went up in smoke the following year.

``In 1982 we had a fire,'' says Copeland matter-of-factly. ``We burnt completely out, and we were closed for seven months. We had quite a time getting things back together, but we came back. It's really been beautiful since.''

Now there are three Copeland enterprises side by side on 145th Street, employing a total of 57 people. Portions are generous, and prices are fairly reasonable: A family of four can have dinner for $50 to $100 in the dining room, including beverages. Freshness and quality ingredients are the rule. The cornbread alone is worth the visit.

The cafeteria serves the same fine food as the restaurant, but at about half the price, and the catering business continues to flourish.

What advice would he give to a young businessman starting out in Harlem today?

``Well,'' says Copeland thoughtfully, ``the only thing I would say is to make sure that he finds out whether he is really capable, and is willing to dedicate his whole self to the business -- especially in the first few years. There's going to be long, tough, drawn-out hours.

``And the next thing is, do not go too big, especially in the beginning. Make it neat, make it clean, make it good food, and be consistent. Doing these things, I don't see where a person can fail.

``Then there's one more thing I'd like to say. Do not try to keep all the profit once you've started getting it. I feel you have to share it with the people that are not quite as fortunate as you are.''

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