The buzz on the street began long before the East Harlem Café was officially launched in October 2008. Opening to great public and media fanfare, the Café welcomed hundreds of local residents, musicians, elected officials, and business and property owners who came out to celebrate and to wish owner Michelle Cruz good luck.
With free Wi-Fi, delicious food and beverages, and a homey atmosphere that encouraged conversation, East Harlem Café lived up to all expectations. It quickly turned into a “satellite office” for local freelancers and “conference room” for neighborhood power brokers, a place where, if you happened to be in the area, you stopped by to see who was there.
East Harlem Café also became the “pulse of the community,” hosting birthday parties, anniversary celebrations, and local charity events such as East Harlem Preservation’s annual fundraisers. The restaurant was the place where relationships were formed or solidified and thus inspired new friendships, love affairs, political alliances, and neighborhood collaborations.
East Harlem Café was also a popular hub for local and visiting artists, who flocked to the restaurant for poetry recitals, music and comedy performances, book-signings, and film screenings. The restaurant’s walls (and windows) also served as a gallery for up-and-coming photographer and visual artists, as well as world-famous icons such as Manny Vega, who created a permanent mosaic installation based on the East Harlem Café’s logo.
Michelle had already made her mark in East Harlem’s business sector as an exemplary graduate of East Harlem Business Capital Corporation’s BusinessWise Seminar Series—an intense 18-session training program for local entrepreneurs.
An accomplished accountant, Michelle enrolled in the program to hone her skills in marketing, business management, insurance, licensing and certification, and financial projections.
By semester’s end, Michelle produced a business plan that included financial projections and a startup budget that helped her acquire financing. Always loyal to her roots, Michelle maintained her connection to her EHBCC “family” and co-chaired the BusinessWise Alumni Association until the agency’s closure in 2014.
A Childhood Dream Realized
Growing up poor in East Harlem, Michelle Cruz realized as a young girl that she wanted to start a business and give back to her community—to “bring the other side here.”
After graduating with an accounting degree from Baruch College, she worked as an accountant with Harlem-based nonprofits such as Covenant House and The Valley.
Having worked in the corporate sector for several years, Michelle decided to pursue her childhood dream and open her own business—all the while reaffirming her roots through advocacy with groups such as East Harlem for Obama, Women of El Barrio, and Las Comadres. (Michelle has also served as a volunteer Treasurer of East Harlem Preservation (EHP) since September 2008, helping develop sustainable fundraising strategies; and creating an open financial management and reporting system.)
Michelle had long nourished a passion for aromatic beverages so she studied the history and varieties of tea, and traveled to coffee farms in rural New York and Puerto Rico to learn from culturally significant growers.
From the start, Michelle was committed to creating a community-based business—hiring neighborhood residents to staff the restaurant and partnering with local food vendors. She was able to secure space from Hope Community, Inc. on one of East Harlem’s busier intersections at Lexington Avenue and 104th Street. She set out to find furniture and fixtures with a comforting homelike theme and hired local artists to design her logo, website, and outdoor marquee.
Soon after the opening, Michelle joined the East Harlem Restaurant and Bar Association—reinforcing local alliances and sharing her financial expertise with other startup merchants in the neighborhood. (She was later selected to participate in Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Businesses program, where she created a system for hiring, training and promoting employees.)
Throughout the history of the East Harlem Café, Michelle organized and encouraged creative opportunities for her customers—an open library, book and crossword-puzzle clubs, walking and running groups, spiritual meet-ups, social and business mixers, and tea parties.
Michelle also supported other small business owners and members of East Harlem’s social services community by providing space for seminars, pop-up expos, and health awareness and prevention activities such as The Mount Sinai Medical Center’s National Arts Program exhibition.
In 2012, Michelle turned to the community to ask for their help to fund infrastructural improvements to the restaurant and to expand the menu to include healthier options. She was able to raise $10,000 in 30 days through an intense crowd-funding campaign, thus solidifying local support.
With the partial closure of the 103rd Street subway station on Lexington Avenue in May 2015, however, early morning and evening traffic to the East Harlem Café was reduced almost 40% as commuters flocked to other stations. Although the MTA did help promote businesses during construction of the Second Avenue subway, there were no such plans initiated to help stores in the vicinity of Lexington Avenue and 103rd Street.
In late 2015, Michelle assessed her personal and professional aspirations, took a deep breath, and decided to move in another direction. The East Harlem Café closed its doors on February 29, 2016—but not before Michelle helped secure positions for her dedicated staff at other local businesses.
Michelle is hardly done with the East Harlem Café’s spirit of relationship-building and she continues to grow personally and professionally as her neighborhood connections deepen. Michelle remains active in local initiatives such as the East Harlem Holiday Tree committee, and maintains a strong connection to the neighborhood’s spiritual community as a member of Metro Hope Church.
In addition to being treasurer of East Harlem Preservation, Michelle sits on the board of Settlement Health. She is also a member of the East Harlem Community Alliance and captain of the East Harlem Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD), which was formed in the wake of the March 12, 2014, gas explosion on Park Avenue that leveled two buildings, claimed the lives of eight people, injured 50 others, and displaced 100 families.
Most recently, Michelle partnered with The Mount Sinai Medical Center to host their annual World AIDS Day/VIVA El Barrio program and other health awareness community campaigns. She has also launched a monthly “Cash Mob” meet-up campaign, encouraging residents to support small businesses in East Harlem.
Michelle Cruz is still actively kicking up a storm every weekend with the East Harlem runner’s club in Central Park. With her soulful, caring eyes, warm smile, and good soul, she continues to nourish her neighbors every day.