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Behind the bar with Harlem Hops
Issue 20: How three HBCU grads are building a community-focused beer bar in Harlem.
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Harlem Hops is a community-focused beer bar in, you guessed it, Harlem, New York. Founded by HBCU grads Kevin Bradford, Stacey Lee, Kim Harris, the bar is a community-driven spot for beers, booze, bites, and beats. They tend to focus on locally-produced beers, and increasingly, they’re offering more beer from Black or brown brewers. I sat down with Kevin, Stacey, and Kim to talk about building a community space in Harlem, their role in a changing neighborhood, and how the beer community came together during the pandemic.
Brianna Plaza: Can you each walk me through your background, how you arrived in the beer industry, and how you guys got together to open a bar?
Stacy Lee: My background is events, but also nonprofit work and providing scholarships for young Black and brown kids to attend HBCUs through scholarships and other ways. In Atlanta many years ago, I was doing events and helped someone open up a restaurant. I was managing the restaurant and bar and one day said to myself, “Hey, if I can help someone else open up this awesome space, why not one day do it myself?"
Kim came to me with an opportunity to partner on Harlem Hops because it was something she’d started working on with another partner but it didn’t work out.
Kevin Bradford: I’ve been in beer since the late ‘80s. When I moved to New York I couldn’t really find good beer and I would always transport beer from elsewhere. I’m from Detroit and I’d always go home and bring back good beer. I’d go to bars and force myself to drink whatever they had and I was always like, “I have better stuff in my refrigerator. Why am I sitting here spending this money on this beer that I can just go home and sit on my porch and drink better beer?”
I always wondered where all the bars were with good beer. Eventually they started to open up but not in Manhattan - it was always Brooklyn and Queens. I always wanted to open something in Harlem and in 2012 I started to think about it. Eventually, my wife finally said, “Look, when are you going to stop talking about it and just do it?”
I wanted to open something up in the downstairs unit of my house but the zoning was not commercial. I heard through the grapevine that another Black couple was opening a craft beer bar in Harlem so I had more urgency to get my project done.
I eventually got connected to Kim through a colleague in the hospitality space, and she’d already been connected to Stacy after her partner dropped out.
Kim Harris: I know for a fact, Harlem Hops would not be what it was if it weren't for me finding Kevin and Stacy to be a part of this. It was the dream team. My journey started when I got laid off from my last job and someone asked me to work on a beer project. I learned more about beer through that experience and in 2012, I realized that there wasn’t a beer bar in the neighborhood so I started drafting a business plan.
Brianna Plaza: I think a lot of times the arrival of high-end drinking establishments can mean that gentrification is coming and it's going to change a neighborhood. What role do you see the bar playing in a changing and growing Harlem?
Kim Harris: It was essential for us to have a business in Harlem. And Kevin was instrumental in making sure that we focused more on New York city craft beers. My original business plan was just all over the place when it came to the beers, but he insisted we focused on New York craft brews.
We all agreed that we just needed to make sure that our pricing was comparable to the rest of the community. You know what I mean? That's why we have a small bites menu. Most of our food is less than $10.
Kim Harris: If you come to our space, you see that we built out a beautiful space with Harlem in the forefront of our minds. We don't sell big brands at all, which will probably help with our profit margin. But for us, it's more about quality and retaining our integrity in terms of the community and making sure that we have affordable products. We don't have a happy hour. We say every hour is happy at Harlem Hops because our pricing is reasonable in terms of the industry standards.
Stacy Lee: I think what's important to us is that all of us graduated from HBCUs. So we created our nonprofit Harlem Hopes where we provide scholarships to graduating seniors in Harlem to attend an HBCU. That's a part of our way of giving back to the community. 100% of the money that we raise for Harlem Hopes goes to educating a Harlem resident. We think it's important to provide some type of help to the community because it's the community that supports us every single day. We also believe that education is freedom. We want to make sure that our community of young people not only see a Black-owned bar establishment, but also understand that we are embedded in education and making sure that our community is educated.
Kevin Bradford: We're here because Harlem wants us here. During the pandemic, Harlem was very supportive of us. Right after Governor Cuomo closed indoor dining in March 2020, we closed for a day and reopened with delivery and crowlers — we didn’t miss a step. People in the neighborhood came in, supported us, and helped us keep our doors open. We wouldn’t be where we are without them. Hats off to our customers. Our biggest support group, if you ask me.
Brianna Plaza: You've talked about a focus on local beers, but there aren't that many brewers of color to begin with. How do you think about bringing underrepresented brewers into your bar and make sure that they get in front of customers?
Kevin Bradford: I’m in a Facebook group called Brothers in Craft Beer and I learn a lot from those guys. It’s a nationwide chat group where we learn about different breweries and find out who the Black and brown brewers are and where they’re working on.
Before we opened, Kim and I would pick a few breweries and get in a car and just drive around New York. During our drives we met Celeste Beatty of Harlem Brewing, Julian Riley of Harlem Blue, and we learned about Four City in New Jersey — all Black-led breweries. We’d go inside and introduce ourselves and talk about how we were opening a bar.
Kim Harris: Since we opened there have been more breweries that have opened locally and in our region. But I also just got a shipment of cans from a brewery out in LA to sample some of their products until they’re ready to distribute in New York. There are about 50 to 60 Black-owned breweries across the country right now and it’s our goal to figure out a way to best inform our audience on what they have to offer. We have to find creative ways to start promoting these brands overall. So as people start to realize that there are Black people in brewing, they'll have an opportunity to try them in different parts of the country.
Brianna Plaza: Do you think that there's ever a possibility where you could feature only Black and brown brewers in your bar?
Kim Harris: That would be amazing but I don't know that that's something we want to strive for. We want to make sure everybody's included. We do have a tap line dedicated exclusively to Black-owned brewers and we rotate our taps quite often. So we try to rotate as much as possible, but I think it would be amazing if we could have more than one line dedicated to it. There's so much great beer out there, I don't want to limit ourselves to one demographic just for the sake of it. Our goal is to not only support Black businesses, but to support small businesses and family owned businesses and people that need the help.
Brianna Plaza: A lot of beer's history is rooted in Africa and the slaves of the American south. How do you tie that history into the experiences at Harlem Hops?
Kim Harris: We have a spot on the bar that's dedicated to the history of beer and its origins in Africa and how it went from Europe to the United States. Settlers in the United States needed help to produce beer here and the slaves helped them in that production — that eventually became the modern day American lager. When you walk into the bar, you get a better understanding of that. When you talk to our staff, if you have questions about it, we explain that process to them so that they know.
It's more for people of color to have a better association with beer, because our community was inundated with malt liquor for so long. We understand how that challenged us in our health. So there has been a period where we just stayed away from it because of that. That's what Black people mostly think of beer, they think of malt liquor. Now we’re trying to dismantle that concept, and knowing that craft beer is a healthier product, which is one of the things that's most important for us.
Brianna Plaza: Overnight, many people made an effort to use their purchasing power, looking at places to spend, especially if they were minority owned. How has the last year changed your business?
Kevin Bradford: Ever since we went back to 25% indoor dining, people just want to get out. As people, we like to sit around and tell stories. When the pandemic first happened, we just went straight to delivering and doing takeout of our product. We pretty much turned to a bottle shop. We actually ran out of crowlers at one point because producers couldn’t keep up. Brick City and Hudson Valley Brewers called us up and were like, "How many do you need, guys?" It was just a community coming together.
You help us, we help you. They looked out for us. We were selling their product in Harlem. There's a demographic, as Kim mentioned, that is not familiar with craft beer. So we're bringing their product to a whole area that's not familiar with craft beer.
Brianna Plaza: What are other ways you’ve seen the community rally around you during this time?
Kim Harris: We like to support other small businesses in the community as much as possible through purchasing products and selling their products at the bar. One of the things we did for our second year anniversary was purchase gift cards or products and services from other local Black owned businesses here in New York and Atlanta and gave them away to our patrons and our followers on Instagram.
That allowed people to have a better understanding of the energy that we have at the bar and strengthened the relationship among other businesses in Harlem itself. Other local restaurateurs and bar owners also helped us at different points as well — helping in our yard or partnering with us.
Kevin Bradford: It’s not even just Harlem. The pandemic has brought a lot of small businesses together as a team. BierWax and The Sampler are also over in Brooklyn — we roll as a team and we're on a hunt for beer for each other.
My main job is being a school teacher. Kim and Stacy have other businesses that they're doing. Thankfully we were never in a mode where we were like, "Oh, well, we about to lose the business. What are we going to do? So we had an opportunity to reach out and help others. I get emotional thinking about it, how we all help each other. That's a good thing.”
Kim Harris: You struck a nerve with my brother, but it is emotional. You got to understand, especially as people of color, we're always struggling. So to be at a place where you're not struggling, and you're in a position to help other people — God put this in us to be here to be a beaming light for other businesses to do the same. To be able to wake up and be positive and be able to shine and inspire other people to continue to shine and not let this thing inundate us with negativity and just keep on growing and building, it's an excellent opportunity for us. And we're happy to be a part of it in any way that we can.
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