These Burger Queens Are Turning Harlem Shake into an Empire

Contributing Author: Tracy E. Hopkins

Harlem Shake

Harlem Shake is a festive, family-friendly burger joint with two uptown locations. The flagship eatery has outdoor seating that overlooks the bustling, brownstone-lined corner of W. 124th Street and Lenox Avenue, and has a retro interior accented with Black entertainer portraits and vintage Jet magazine covers. The second eatery is located at 2162 Second Ave. The name Harlem Shake is a clever take on the dance craze of the early-2000s, and it also gives a nod to the restaurant’s indulgent, organic milkshakes (the Red Velvet with real cake is a fave). Founded by Jelena Pasic (above left), a native of Croatia, in partnership with Harlemite Dardra Coaxum (above right), Harlem Shake is an example of how “sisters” can do it for themselves and forge successful business partnerships. We spoke with the burger queens via email.

Harlem Shake

What inspired you to open Harlem Shake?

Jelena Pasic: Harlem Shake opened in 2013. I was inspired to open the restaurant because I was looking for a new venture after my divorce, and I knew I wanted to work for myself. A friend introduced me to a location smack in the middle of Harlem. Since I was looking around Harlem for 10 years prior, I knew immediately that was the spot. I was a single mother of two and didn’t want to be forced to spend nights at the restaurant. So I wanted to focus on a fast casual, family-friendly spot. Ironically, even though I’m not a huge burger fan, I noticed that at the time Harlem didn’t have a high-quality burger restaurant, and I decided to go that route.

How did the partnership between you and Pasic come about? And how do you divvy up the responsibilities?

Dardra Coaxum: The partnership with Jelena and I developed through my father, restaurateur Dard Coaxum. She was originally working on Harlem Shake with him, and after our introduction we instantly clicked. My father asked if I was interested in coming onto the project, and she has been of great assistance helping me and teaching me the ins and outs. Jelena holds a huge responsibility with managing the day-to-day operations of the restaurant. She is extremely knowledgeable in this business, so it is wonderful to have her in charge. I remain part of the face of Harlem Shake and deal with a lot of our community endeavors.

Harlem Shake

As a Harlem native, what was your vision for Harlem Shake? What makes you proudest about the restaurant?

Coaxum: Being a Harlem native, my vision for Harlem Shake was to have a place for our community to eat and feel comfortable – a place where they would become regulars, a place where our employees would learn our customers by name, and be comfortable enough to engage in conversation. What makes me proudest about Harlem Shake is being able to employ so many people who are also from Harlem. Being able to give back to our community not only through food, but employment is very important to me.

What makes Harlem Shake different from other fast-casual hamburger restaurants like Shake Shack?

Pasic: Food-wise, everything is made from scratch in house, and the ingredients are top quality. The whole menu was conceptualized by James Beard award-winning food writer, Kenji Lopez Alt. We buy only grass-fed Pat La Frieda beef and free-range chicken. Our French fries are made with Kennebec varietal, hand-cut in house and are fried in salad oil with no chemical additives and antioxidants, to which we add a small percentage of beef tallow for flavor (just like McDonald's did back in the 1980s). All of our shakes are 100 percent organic, with local Blue Marble ice cream.

We are also unique because we are tied into the community in many different ways. Our “The Wall of Fame” is adorned by photos of famous patrons from the neighborhood dedicated to Harlem Shake. The retro interior design by local designer and inn owner Dennis Decker, who is also one of partners, is reminiscent of Harlem in the '50s and '60s. Eighty percent of our work force comes from local zip codes, and so do the majority of our partners. Last but not least, we regularly give back to the community through supporting numerous local non-profits, but also through our annual Ms. and Mr. Harlem Shake competition, which is a fun way to give back to the local charity of choice and to give the winner a $1,000 cash reward and free burgers for a year.

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