HARLEM — When Leon Ellis opened Moca Lounge on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and West 119th Street in 2003, most people told him he was crazy.
The area from West 110th up to West 125th streets wasn't the restaurant row that it is today. There were no co-ops, condos or new hotels, yellow cabs didn't want to come to the neighborhood, and drugs were being sold in front of a nearby building.
"For a while, us and the bodega down the street were the only things open at night," Ellis said. "Someone asked me why you would put a place like Moca in a place like this."
A decade later, things have changed, and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, from West 110th to West 125th streets, is booming.
"When he opened Moca Lounge there was a nightlife scene on the avenue, but it's not one that you wanted to be a part of," said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, executive director of Harlem Park to Park.
Moca, she said, changed that. "It set the foundation for the nightlife that has now developed."
Today, Ellis is recognized as a pioneer by his peers and owns three businesses, and has plans in the distant future to open a fourth enterprise along Frederick Douglass Boulevard.
In addition to Moca Lounge, Ellis owns Chocolat, an upscale restaurant; Harlem Underground, which sells Harlem-themed T-shirts, and he hopes to someday open a family-friendly joint called Honeycomb Burger. His shops dominate the east and west sides of Frederick Douglass Boulevard between West 119th and West 120th streets.
Ellis is also one of the African-American business owners to have survived the surge of popularity that has attracted experienced and well-financed restaurateurs to Harlem along with national chains.
"It was scary as a black entrepreneur to look around and see huge chains opening, restaurant owners with 10 restaurants and [to know] that people who were once there could no longer afford to compete," Ellis said.
Other African-American-owned businesses haven't been as lucky lately, with a rash of closings over the past year.
"It's been rare to have an African-American entrepreneur who was there during the time when the avenue was experiencing some hardships who has been able to survive, expand and open up other businesses," said Regina Smith, executive director of the Harlem Business Alliance, which operates a center to help small businesses with back office functions.
Ellis says ensuring his survival and growth is why he halted plans for his fourth project, Honeycomb Burger, until he believed the time was right. He hopes to open the shop by the end of this year or in early 2014.
"I don't want to spread myself too thin," said Ellis, who is of Jamaican heritage and who graduated from Tuskegee University with a degree in food science and nutrition.
In 2012, Ellis also launched a second branch of Harlem Underground, which is becoming a popular stop for a growing number tourists.
"It's smart to give Chocolat the time it needs to develop," Evans-Hendricks said. "He's very analytical, sitting back and watching the market because it has been a tough couple of years.
"This is a restaurant row but there is room for other businesses and services to support the people who live here and provide jobs," he said.
The ventures are not Ellis' first in Harlem. He owned Emily's, which served what Ellis described as "progressive soul food" on Fifth Avenue and 110th Street from 1992 to 2002.
"He was over there alone and ran that business so well that he built something from nothing long before Harlem was hot," Evans-Hendricks said.
It's that experience that Ellis says helped him sense opportunity. A developer came to Ellis and said they were renovating buildings on Frederick Douglass Boulevard and looking for brave tenants to anchor the bottom floor in the hopes of helping to transform the area.
It was a risk that allowed Ellis to secure favorable lease terms for Moca, a significant factor in the failure of other African-American owned businesses.
Harlem Congregations for Community Improvement, a non-profit focused on community development, owns the building where Chocolat is located and has also been helpful in assisting to sustain and grow his businesses, Ellis said.
These days, entrepreneurs who come to Ellis when they are thinking of launching new businesses in the area are less skeptical than the prospective apartment renters, buyers and merchants of a decade ago.
"The opportunity was for someone who wanted to make a difference and not just money. I hope I've done that," Ellis said.