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Soul Food Restaurateur Calvin Copeland Remembered as Harlem Booster

By Jeff Mays | August 29, 2012 10:06am

HARLEM — If there was a dish that best described what acclaimed Harlem restaurateur Calvin Copeland tried to accomplish with his soul food restaurant Copeland's, it was the chitterlings served with a glass of champagne, according to his son.

"He had the idea to bring fine dining to Harlem with table clothes, jacketed waiters and a maitre d' but not downtown cuisine," said Vincent Copeland, a week after his father's death at the age of 87. "He didn't want to go upscale with the food because he wanted it to be accessible to the community."

The elder Copeland died Aug. 23 from Alzheimer's disease at St. Luke's Hospital — four years after closing his restaurant at Broadway Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue due to a dwindling clientele and financial difficulties.

His death comes weeks after that of another Harlem soul food folk hero, Sylvia Woods, who as the owner of Sylvia's Restaurant, was known as the "Queen of Soul Food." Woods, 86, died July 19 at her Westchester home after battling Alzheimer's.

"There were only two people always mentioned when it came to soul food in Harlem and it was Copeland's and Sylvia's," said Michele March, who helped Calvin Copeland shutter his restaurant in 2007.

"The rivalry people said was there was false. When Sylvia's started getting bus tours and so many people she couldn't feed them she would call and say: 'Copeland, can you take 20 to 30 people?' and he would say 'Send them on up,'" said March.

"That was the spirit they had. I loved them both and the Harlem community-at-large loved them both the same," said March.

But while Sylvia's was located in rapidly gentrifying Central Harlem at Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th streets, Copeland's was in Hamilton Heights which grew with Latino immigrants.

"The business closed because he wasn't making money," March said. "You didn't have enough foot traffic and it became a matter of time. He was spending his own money to pay staff."

Prior to its closing, Copeland's served food so good it drew a bevy of celebrities along with tourists and neighborhood residents, his son said.

The menu included chitterlings, or pig intestines, baked macaroni and cheese, potato salad and collard greens along with desserts like bread pudding.

"If you weren't dressed properly, you wouldn't even be seated," said Fred Stanton, a long-time maitre d' at the restaurant. "He insisted upon dress. I had quite a few confrontations."

Comedian Richard Pryor was once mobbed at the restaurant, Michael Jackson waited in a limousine outside while his food was delivered to him and Natalie Cole often had pans of bread pudding shipped to her in California.

"God bless Luther Vandross, but my father might be responsible for his early demise. He ate here a lot," said Vincent Copeland.

Rep. Charles Rangel, who has represented Harlem for over 40 years, recalled Copeland as "truly a pioneer not only in our community but also an inspiration to the rest of the country," he said.

"I still remember when he opened Copeland's Restaurant in 1967. For decades it brought people together, from both far and near, for some real good soul food," he added.

But his father was reluctant to close the restaurant because he saw it as a vehicle to helping the community partly because of his own past, said Vincent Copeland.

Calvin Copeland was born in Virginia and began working in restaurants as a child.  After his parents died he was sent North to live with an aunt who took him in and taught him her fried chicken recipe.

It was while working at a restaurant in Paramus in the 1940s that he met his wife Rita, an Irish immigrant. They kept their relationship a secret at first because interracial relationships were still considered taboo at the time.

After working in restaurants in New Jersey and New York City, Copeland opened his own storefront catering operation in Harlem at Broadway and 148th Street in 1958. Vincent Copeland said his father wanted the endeavor to be a family business where extended members of the family could work and invest. It was his way of thanking the family for taking him and his siblings in after his parents died.

Soon he was selling soul food and custom cakes and also opened a cafeteria style restaurant before expanding and taking over another storefront where he started Copeland's.

Vincent Copeland said his father, whom he says struggled with alcoholism for many years before becoming sober, saw the restaurant as a way to give people second chances.

"There was an endless succession of recovering drug addicts, alcoholics and men just released from prison, some of whom had never had a job before," said Vincent Copeland.

Calvin Copeland gave one homeless man a job as a pot washer and night security man. Another man, a drug addict who refused offers of jobs inside the restaurant, became a car washer and watched for the police as double parked customers ducked into the restaurant.

"He had many offers to move downtown but he was determined to never move that business," said Vincent Copeland. "He said the business needed to be in Harlem because it was about teaching people to reclaim their dignity like he did."

That's why Calvin Copeland always thought he would reopen the business one day, said Gertrude Clark, who was one of Copeland's first employees. She made the potato salad the restaurant was famous for and other soul food delicacies despite not having a background in southern cuisine.

"He always thought he would re-open even until a year ago," said Clark. "Even in the nursing home he would talk about the restaurant and ask did the workers get paid."

Calvin Copeland handled every aspect of the business from cooking to cleaning while his wife Rita handled the books.

A long-time customer, Charlene Singleton, said she was surprised to learn that the man in the white chef's hat was the owner. She requested the manager after one of the workers wouldn't fill her request for white meat chicken one day.

"I said, 'How about you get me the manager' and he said, 'What about the owner," said Singleton. "He worked so hard that unless they told you it was Mr. Copeland you thought he was just one of the waiters."

Calvin Copeland was preceded in death by his wife Rita. He is survived by his four children, Vincent, Irene Clark, Calvin Copeland, Jr. and Gwendolyn Copeland. Funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Wednesday at Our Lady of Lourdes RCC, 436 West 142nd Street.