HARLEM — Last year, the first Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference was just a warning shot announcing that the historic neighborhood had once again arrived, said Nikoa Evans-Hendricks, head of Harlem Park to Park and the conference's organizer.
This year, the conference features culinary heavyweights such as restaurateurs Richie Notar, who has taken control of the old Lenox Lounge space, and Alexander Smalls, responsible along with former Time Warner chairman and CEO Richard Parsons for bringing back The Cecil and, soon, Minton's, a jazz supper club.
"This year we want people to walk away with industry insider information on how to be successful," said Evans-Hendricks.
Harlem is in the midst of a restaurant and hospitality boom.
The neighborhood ranks as the third most popular tourist destination in the city, drawing 1.3 million visitors per year, according to the Harlem Community Development Corporation.
News of a new restaurant opening is now a frequent occurrence. The Aloft Harlem, the first new hotel in 40 years, is doing well and Central Harlem has dozens of bed-and-breakfasts. A Chinese firm recently purchased a parcel of land on 126th Street with the hopes of building a new hotel.
"The potential here is extraordinary," Smalls said. "You now have restaurants like The Cecil and Minton's and Red Rooster that no one imagined five years ago would be here."
Notar said it was jazz artist Wynton Marsalis who got him extremely excited about the Lenox Lounge space. After reading a report that the space was available, he asked Marsalis, his neighbor, whether he thought he should acquire the space.
Notar said Marsalis became excited and started talking about the history of the space and all the people who had played there.
"I saw the excitement and the reaction of a master of jazz and music," Notar said.
It led him to a revelation: "There's nothing like Harlem. I can open anywhere and will, but there are things that are site specific."
Evans-Hendricks said that's the foundation they want to build on by giving entrepreneurs of all sizes the skills to thrive in Harlem.
For example, despite the talk about big names such as Notar and Smalls coming to Harlem, there's still room to create homegrown culinary brands. Harlem needs more bed-and-breakfast locations and there is space to develop an artisanal foods market, said Evans-Hendricks.
Both Notar and Smalls will join a roster of all-star guests, including Serena Bass, celebrity caterer and executive chef at Lido Harlem; Richard Coraine, managing partner of Union Square Hospitality Group; Christina Grdovic, vice president and publisher of Food & Wine Magazine; and Adam Saper, managing partner, Eataly New York.
Some of the panels include topics such as "Thriving as David in the Land of Goliath," "Cocktails and Nightlife: What Makes a Great Bar?" and "NYC's Wake Up Call: Meeting Growing Demand for Harlem Hotels."
Smalls said the conference will only help with Harlem's development as a hub for hospitality and the culinary arts.
"It's important to have forums like this so we can plant those seeds," Smalls said. "I want to see more hotels and I want to see the hospitality industry and the entertainment industry claim their rightful presence in the community."
The second annual Harlem Hospitality and Culinary Conference, sponsored by American Express, Uptown Magazine and the Harlem Community Development Corporation, will be held on Wednesday, Oct. 23 from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at The Studio Museum in Harlem, 144 W. 125th St. RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org.