If spreading love is the Brooklyn way (and it is), and food is love (which it is), then the long-anticipated arrival of Harlem Shake in Park Slope is more than a little worth celebrating. The award-winning and critically-acclaimed fast casual restaurant will open its second location—and first-ever Brooklyn location—later this month, bringing its iconic burgers, hot dogs and hand-spun shakes to 119 Fifth Avenue (at Sterling Place).
Harlem Shake’s new digs will feature all of the magic of its eight-year-old flagship location in Harlem, including menu favorites such as the award-winning ‘Hot Mess’ burger topped with pickled cherry pepper-bacon relish, American cheese, pickles, onions and spicy chipotle mayo and a line-up of organic milkshakes that highlight local products like ice cream from Brooklyn-based Blue Marble. Guests can expect, however, to find thoughtful, Brooklyn-inspired influences throughout the space, and in menu collaborations with other local businesses still to come.
“Our aim is to bring our celebrated concept to Brooklyn, with a bit of nostalgia and a nod to pop culture,” says Jelena Pasic, founder of Harlem Shake. “Not to mention, bring residents and visitors high-quality, affordable offerings in a welcoming environment.”
Creating that ‘welcoming environment’ has been the work of partner Dardra Coaxum, who designed the restaurant’s interiors. Utilizing reused, recycled and refurbished furniture and fixtures, Coaxum has created a space that showcases all the warmth of the location’s history—with plenty of modern, playful touches that reflect the restaurant’s own history, from its signature “Wall of Fame,” which will include autographed photos of famous and notable patrons and friends, to the “Wall of Fab” which will feature vintage hairstyles of neighborhood residents, and more.
Ahead of Harlem Shake’s opening in Brooklyn, we spoke with Pasic and Coaxum about the new space, their hopes for it, and so much more. Here’s what they had to say.
Edible Brooklyn: We are so excited for your new location in Brooklyn! We know you’re set to open in early September. Do you have a definitive opening date yet?
Jelena Pasic: With the pandemic delays on equipment, but especially on hiring issues, we are shooting for the last week of September, but have not set a definite date yet.
EB: How long has Harlem Shake’s Brooklyn location been in the works?
JP: We have been thinking about Brooklyn for years, and did some location scouting in 2015, but then dropped it for some years; but this location came up out of the blue [Editor’s note: see below], and we really had no idea it was happening before this June.
EB: How did you find the space for the new location?
JP: We were shopping in the neighborhood for a real estate purchase when we spotted this corner covered in brown paper. Upon taking a closer look, we realized it was a fully built burger joint, with brand new, never used equipment. It even had sign-offs and our POS system and was fitted out to the security camera system and music system. We immediately put in an offer and the landlord chose us amongst many competitive offers. We jumped at the opportunity, especially since we got a very good deal on the key money.
Dardra Coaxum: The location is a really charming brick building on the corner of a residential street that meets 5th Avenue, which is known for having a ton of great businesses. It’s truly the best of both worlds being at such a great intersection.
EB: What made now feel like the right time?
JP: Obviously the past 18 months have been an absurdly challenging time for restaurants; while so many others are closing or limiting their hours, Harlem Shake is expanding!
EB: Could you tell us a little bit about how you’ve been able to thrive and are even expanding in the ongoing COVID era?
JP: First off, I think we have been very fortunate to have an expansive delivery system in place. So when the pandemic shutdown hit, we were already set up with infrastructure to keep working. Then, when a lot of full service places closed, we even got their overflow. We benefited from never closing for a day, and still being able to get some help from the city and federal government. We streamlined our offerings and spent time “working from home” to plan expansion to franchise and also wholly owned stores in a scalable way. We ended the year on a very good note, and decided to cautiously expand by one location. That being said, the same staffing challenges that the rest of our peers are facing are happening to us. Great employees are very few and far between under these circumstances. We have struggled to maintain staffing levels and we are fortunate that we have core employees who have held things together which really solidified our gratitude. Some of them even became vested as partners in the process. We really realized how important it is to have family-style collective effort and a loyal team.
EB: We know you’ll be partnering with two Brooklyn food producers at the new location. Any chance you could tell us more about these collaborations (including whom they’re with, if you’re feeling generous)?
JP: For now, we have partnered with local Island Pops and will have some exciting items. First off, our best selling and Harlem famous froze will get a new twist with the Caribbean influenced guava flavor. We will also have Soursop milkshakes. I have to admit that is personally influenced because I always feel in heaven when I taste some good soursop (guanabana) and I could literally live on it! I usually get my fix at local Caribbean smoothie joints or Colombian cafes, but I am very happy that now we will be able to get some right at Harlem Shake. It will be exciting to see how this will blend with our standard milkshake base by (also BK local) Blue Marble! Additionally, we are looking at a hot sauce and a red velvet cake from local BK producers, but that is as much as I can share now.
EB: What about the new location makes you most excited? How does it feel to be joining the Brooklyn community? What do you love about it?
JP: As a person that originally started my company from a Brooklyn apartment in 2009, it feels like things are coming full circle. I am Croatian and when I moved to NYC, my love was always kind of split halfway between Harlem and Brooklyn, but at one point, life took me the Harlem way and that became a permanent love story. But Brooklyn always remained my “back burner dream”. Now, 11 years later, coming “back” to Brooklyn makes me so happy. I love my BK memories such as BAM, Soul Summit in Fort Greene park, Caribbean Day Parade, or listening to live music in Prospect Park circle, and many friendships in Crown Heights, Park Slope, and Clinton Hill, just to name a few. Brooklyn also underwent a tremendous change since I moved out, and it is interesting to see what kept. I would love for Harlem Shake to contribute to the neighborhood feel that is getting wiped out in the rest of NYC, and I think Brooklyn did the best job in resisting and keeping the vibe. That makes me excited to be a part of that.
DC: I think one of the coolest and most exciting things to see is the blend of Harlem & Brooklyn coming together. We’ve always had the little battle of the boroughs between Manhattan and Harlem, and I think it’s pretty dope to see us expanding with our next location to the borough of BK. Especially that we are specifically located in Park Slope. Park Slope has a very communal neighborhood, similar to Harlem. All of the neighbors have stopped by inquiring about construction, and menu items, all the while being extremely welcoming and excited for us to open. Not only that but being so close to the Barclay Center we will have the chance to welcome so many tourists that will be able to experience a little bit of Harlem without having to make the trip Uptown.
EB: Will the new location have any exclusive menu items?
JP: As mentioned above, we will have a couple of exclusive beverages and an item with a *mystery* Hot sauce TBD.
EB: And finally, what’s next for the Harlem Shake? What’s the dream moving forward?
JP: We would like to enter the year in gratitude for past 8 years of success and recognition in Harlem, and by putting the Brooklyn location on solid footing. As I have mentioned before, we have spent most of the pandemic focusing on setting the groundwork and infrastructure for franchise expansion, and we have completed all necessary steps to register. We will continue to roll out the franchise expansion in 2022 and beyond.