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Breaking Bread Under the Rainbow: How a Harlem Businesswoman Creates a Welcoming Table for All

09/03/2013 03:04 pm ET | Updated Nov 03, 2013

As a social worker and community activist interested in macro-level dynamics, I am in constant search of practices that embrace the empowerment of people through the utilization of the most pragmatic and organic of techniques. I am particularly impressed by practices emanating from paradigms that seek to strengthen communities by first uniting and creating a synergy of care among those who comprise our neighborhoods, cities, countries and world.

No matter where in the world, nods of thanks and satisfaction given after a well-executed meal are intended for those who not only prepare the meal, but for those who share in the experience. I have always believed in the power of food, particularly the act of breaking bread, as an agent capable of facilitating unity, communication, understanding, healing, and, ultimately, empowerment. I certainly tip my hat to any dining experience where two or more are gathered.

As a most organic model utilized to bring people together, I feel the act of breaking bread is a woefully underappreciated tool in encouraging community building, empowerment, and a host of other positive outcomes in today's society. With the support of empirical data, it is suggested breaking bread has clear implications in positive outcomes for the lives of individuals, couples and families. Such findings support a belief I've held my entire life: The power of food is real! Research has indicated that couples who dine together experience greater satisfaction in their marriage, and families who dine together produce a more harmonious household, with the entire family unit benefiting from this very simple act. Perhaps, this is because it allows for so many complex issues to take center stage, facilitating a level of care and communication that is so seamless, you often don't notice. It's quite difficult to dine with someone and not care about their experience, and equally as hard not communicate, which seems the first step always in the prevention of calamities, and navigating, then overcoming, hardships. While I've been able to discover data supporting the benefits of breaking bread on a micro and mezzo level, I've yet to encounter studies that have tackled the benefits of this most primitive act on a macro-level. Having always recognized the organic bonding, community building and healing that occurs via the breaking bread, I believe it's a singular act that can serve us holistically; serving as a vehicle to fuel our physical, emotional, mental and spiritual beings on a micro-, mezzo- and macro-level.

As a Southern transplant to the Big Apple almost twenty years ago, I found myself drawn to the restaurant industry of New York. While the first job I landed in the city was in retail, my tenure in that industry lasted all of three months, as I scored my first restaurant gig after only a few months of living in New York. While the experience of New York City sophisticates dining out resembled very little of my experience of eating with my family, friends or neighborhood (Yes, sometimes, it was a neighborhood affair.) back home, I enjoyed trying to replicate that atmosphere of my childhood, no matter how fancy the establishment. In a city like New York, it's very easy to take for granted the abundance of dining options. From the array of cuisines, to the wide variety of highly stylized --or not-- venues, we sometimes forget the amount of work it takes for a crew of spectacularly talented people to execute and deliver to us these plates and places of wonder that help to sustain a city. For sure, I've always viewed breaking bread as something more than the physical act of eating; a moment where we share more than just food; and an opportunity to pass more than the salt and pepper. It is as spiritual a moment as any I've ever experienced. It relaxes; it compels you to care; it allows you to enjoy; it encourages you to share; it sustains; it encourages you to hope; it satisfies; and it heals. This is a notion I try to remind all who partake in the dining experience of; from those who prepare the food, to those who consume it.

In addition to social work and all things culinary, I have an equally as passionate affinity for Harlem. Throughout its magnificent history, Harlem has been a leader in building community using the most organic of tools, including music and food. These elements, even in a profession like social work, and though the historical evidence is quite supportive, are often overlooked with regard to their power to transform individuals, families and communities, but the people of Harlem have always maintained a special place for such essential features of life, taking pride in their village's ability to utilize them as support systems and weapons against societal ills that seek to divide.

In addition to its unparalleled contributions to music, Harlem has a history of comforting with delectable delights, no matter day or night. From chicken and waffles, barbecue, pigs' feet and peach cobbler, to pernil, mofongo, and cuchifritos, Harlem has been providing the most soulful and satisfying meals for over a century. Stalwarts like Sylvia's, Perk's, Londel's, along with newcomers like Billie's Black, Red Rooster, and Camaradas el Barrio have been entertaining palates, nourishing spirits, and asserting eateries as integral to the fabric of the community, and spaces where we gather to celebrate community.

In 2007, I had the occasion to meet someone who epitomizes how transformative the power of food can be from the micro (individual) to the macro (community). In January of that year, I received a phone call from a former service industry colleague asking if I would be interested in helping out a Harlem restaurant in need of managerial staff. Employed full-time, and having been away from the industry for quite some time, I hesitated to say yes, knowing it would be a challenge to maintain such a schedule. Anyone who's ever worked in the service industry can tell you that while chock-full of very gratifying moments, it's a grueling profession. To commit to a schedule that would require a work week of almost seventy hours was cause for some serious deliberation, but nonetheless, I decided to at least visit the restaurant to make an assessment before saying "Yea" or "Nay."

Pier 2110, a seafood restaurant in the heart of Harlem, had been operating for approximately six months, and it took my breath away. I was excited to see such a "fancy" restaurant in Harlem. It boasted a selection and decor that had not been seen in Harlem for quite some time, but with Harlem's arrival as a new culinary destination not yet cemented, this 10,000 square-foot nautical wonderland, and a dream-come-true for its owner, Betty Park, proved to be a little ahead of its time. Unlike those restaurants that are popping up and thriving in Harlem today, Betty and her dream to bring an upscale dining experience back to Harlem preceded the landing of those like famed celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and his equally acclaimed Red Rooster Harlem. Red Rooster opened a full four years after her venture, and ushered in a new era of dining Uptown that would now certainly allow an ambitious venture like Pier 2110 to sustain itself. Lacking the "buzz" of today's Harlem culinary scene, the restaurant folded after being open a little over a year. While disappointed with the closure of Pier 2110, Betty quickly dusted herself off, commenting "You only fail when you don't try." You can't help but take these words to heart from this diminutive woman, as she has exemplified the spirit of a fighter all her life.

Betty, a petite 60-something year-old woman, arrived in the United States from Korea in 1974 in search of, like most immigrants to this country, a better life for her and her family. She first settled in Detroit "Motor City," Michigan, a pit stop where she would find herself confronted head-on with the complexity of race relations in this country, a confrontation where naiveté proved the best defense and allowed a valuable lesson to unfold in a most unbiased manner, though bias was the impetus for the experience.

Working as a waitress in a local restaurant, she was not only the new kid on the block, but someone who was different (the only Korean). Being the least senior person in the establishment, Betty, without knowing it, was supposedly being "punished" by having African American patrons steered to her section of the restaurant. This was deemed punishment because the restaurant maintained a belief that African Americans were poor tippers. Without being privy to the tactics of her colleagues, and having no clue as to why this was happening, Betty did what she does best: She greeted all with respect and the sunny disposition she maintains to this day. Within months, Betty noticed the African American patrons would wait for her section, insisting she be the person to serve them. Management and her fellow employees were baffled by this occurrence, and even more baffled when these patrons tipped her generously. The punishment failed, and, according to Betty, served as an eye opener: "Treat people with respect, and they will reward you ten-fold." This would be the beginning of her welcoming folks to her table, a table where that care and communication mentioned earlier would blossom into something truly special.

With this lesson in hand, soon, Betty found herself moving to New York City with her family in tow. She operated a small takeout business in the heart of Harlem, where she, again, quickly discovered the largess of the African American community's heart, her ability to adapt, and the power of food to unite. As she tells the story, she was introduced to the culinary delights of soul food through a resident of Harlem who volunteered to teach her the recipes of his family. After perfecting the recipes, Manna's Restaurant, a buffet style restaurant with a smorgasbord of soulful culinary renderings, was born in 1985, and she and her food have been comforting the people of Harlem ever since, and supplying much-needed jobs to the area for just as long. She, along with sons, Ian and Charleton and brother, Andy, now operate four locations in Harlem and two in Brooklyn making her a very successful businesswoman who has remained firmly entrenched in the needs of the community. The Manna's chain of restaurants, located throughout Central Harlem, operates on a simple formula: provide quality food at a decent price, while truly welcoming the community as an extension of the business. One visit to Manna's, and you'll realize how successful this formula has been. In the midst of an always crowded scene of folks packing their chicken, greens, potato salad, banana pudding and, yes, chitterlings into their styrofoam containers, you realize Betty has created an atmosphere where people remain loyal and supportive because they are comfortable to be who they are, feel welcomed by the staff, and respected as a member of a community where mutual concern and care have remained a priority. Manna's is where you visit to witness a model of collaboration that is rarely seen between businesses and the communities they dwell in.

Having not been raised in the United States, Betty was not privy to emergence of soul food as a cuisine steeped in the rich traditions of African slaves, as well as what was intended to be humiliating and controlling acts of slave owners. We've all heard of the skill utilized to bring the master's "scraps" to life by those deemed unworthy to enjoy the better offerings from the table, kitchen or garden; skill and mastery of scraps that yielded unparalleled flavors and seduced a nation. Historically, we have known many who have benefited from the hearts and recipes of Black people in this country for centuries, without even a smidgeon of credit (Paula Deen anyone?). Unlike others taking credit for the cuisine created, crafted and perfected by African Americans, Betty only takes credit for being receptive to an exchange that has enriched her life, as well as the village of Harlem. What impresses me about Betty is her constant gratitude expressed to the people of Harlem, beginning with the gentleman who taught her the ins and outs of soul food all those years ago. The provision of food, delivered always with a side of love, has brought Betty great success, and, like me, she has always believed in the power of food to bring people together, settle differences, and prove we're more alike than not. "Soul food has a lot of similarities to the food I grew up with in Korea, and like the food, I found the people of Harlem and myself had a lot in common."

In Betty and her businesses, one can clearly see a reciprocal love, respect and benefit created, extended and returned over and over again, allowing a prosperity that permits a community, and its inhabitants, to bond, support, survive and dream.

For me personally, the most moving part of Betty's story occurred during the boycott of Korean merchants in Harlem during the 1980's. After months of protest and racial conflict, local politicians, business owners and community members decided to hold a town hall meeting to discuss ways to bring the boycott to an end and reunite the community. At this meeting the politicians and community members were very vocal, but when it came time for the merchants to speak up and share their side of the story, most of the crowd was hesitant to do so. In a landscape dominated by men, it was Betty who raised her hand, taking the floor to address the crowd in a manner that was so honest and moving that admiration for not only her business, but for the other business owners as well, began to return and flourish.

For those who thought the Korean merchants of Harlem were aloof or mean, she reminded the crowd that many of her cohorts were from a place that experienced many calamities including war; reminding the crowd that "it's sometimes difficult to smile, when your heart is heavy." To those who accused the Korean merchants of hiring only Koreans, she informed them that the people they see are family, and "sometimes, family are the only workers you can afford to pay." She made a promise that when she was able to hire more from the community, she would. Betty has kept that promise and many others. She contributes to many organizations, fellow businesses, places of worship and individuals, remembering the value of giving back to a community that has given so much to her. Without fanfare, she remains a servant to the community of Harlem, a role that she relishes, and is exemplified in acts like donating countless turkeys and meals to those without during the holidays.

As Harlem continues to change at a rapid place, with newcomers receiving the majority of the attention nowadays, I think it's worthwhile to acknowledge and thank those who have helped to sustain the vibrancy of the community, keeping alive the spirit of the village when few others were interested. Like Harlem's history of bringing people together, in Betty Park we have a prime example of the bounty to be had in the embrace of inclusiveness, fairness and love. Indeed, Betty loves Harlem, and Harlem loves Betty. Beyond finding the commonality of our cuisines, she has found the commonality of our spirits that unites us.

Betty's desire to defy divisive practices and people continues. Most recently, and though not a street vendor, she was the first to sign on as a food vendor in support of Harlem Pride Celebration Day, an event spearheaded by Harlem Pride, Uptown's preeminent lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and same-gender-loving (LGBT/SGL) organization. The event celebrates the illustrious history and current residents of Harlem's LGBT/SGL community. While others may have shied away from the event, Betty jumped in with her full support. "I want the gay people of Harlem to know that Manna's supports them." After the event, Betty was still aglow with PRIDE, calling Harlem Pride to congratulate the organization on their effort, adding "It was so nice to see so many people together; to see so many people come out in support of gay people with no problems. I was so proud of Harlem."

Recently, I met with Betty to ask her about any dreams she may still like to tackle. With a smile that consumed her face, and true to form, she spoke at length about helping others, about finding ways to ensure others enjoy life a little more. She mentioned wanting to be able "to do something for the children an adults of Korea who are of mixed-race," noting, like NFL superstar Hines Ward, the particular hardships they experience. Of course, she also mentioned a desire to continue to use food as a source of uniting people: "Maybe a restaurant that can successfully combine Korean food with soul food - that would be nice." While the success of Manna's has been nothing short of amazing, with her business model being copied throughout Harlem, as well as back in her home country, I, for one, would certainly like to see this woman throw her hat back in the ring, and continue that dream of having an upscale eatery in Harlem. Until then, I only hope that people recognize what a tremendous gift this woman has been to the village of Harlem.

In New York, a city of diversity, yet one still too divided among the silliest of lines (skin color, country of origin), I'm often shocked by the lack of cultural exchange that transpires. While most of us are forced to come interact with those of a different culture, race, or ethnicity due to city living, it seems many still lack the ability or interest to really get to know a person, to scratch beyond the superficial banter shared at our favorite watering holes or fleeting moments of contact, and allow for a swapping of stories and traditions that make us who we are. The benefits that would abound if we could just wrap our heads around being more alike than not, would, like the manna referenced in the Bible, seem heaven-sent. I'm a firm believer that Betty and her Manna's were heaven-sent to Harlem, and Harlem was heaven-sent to her.