Man Around Town: Leon Ellis—Embracing Harlem

Leon Ellis is a man flying under the radar. And for quite some time, that was exactly how he liked it. Until now.

Leon is a Harlem entrepreneur with close ties to his community—a community where a bond has formed that appears to be reciprocal. He chose Harlem as his focal point and, just as surprising, the neighborhood seems to have chosen him.

Harlem has embraced Leon and all of his ventures, which, thus far, include Moca Lounge (above), Chocolat Restaurant and Harlem Underground. And if history is any indicator, Harlem will be just as accepting of his newest upcoming venture, Honeycomb Burger.

Leon Ellis is a busy man. As I sat across the table from him at Chocolat, his upscale eatery located on the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 120th Street, he appeared stress-free and relaxed—an unexpected picture for someone who juggles an exorbitant number of balls behind the scenes.

A long-time resident of the community, Leon has over twenty years vested in Harlem. For him, it seemed a natural fit to bring his entrepreneurial vision to the area. And with over thirty people in his employ, he not only brings stability to the neighborhood which helps stimulate the economic growth of the place he calls home, he brings a sense of pride.

“I love this place!” Leon reflects aloud. “Harlem is culturally historical. And I think it’s important for businesses in the community to hire from within the community. It’s good for the local economy.”

Harlem Underground, a tee shirt apparel store that also sells its merchandise online, has been going strong since 1998. When asked why he decided to open a shop that specializes in Harlem themed tee shirts, he responded with candor.

“Whenever I traveled outside of New York and told people I was from Harlem, there would be this level of excitement,” he said. “People had an interest in Harlem. I didn’t think there was anything out there like this [Harlem Underground] that represented Harlem, on a tee shirt. There was no place out there selling Harlem apparel.” And thus an idea was born, the seed was planted and the vision has come to fruition.

When it comes to ideas, Leon has more than his fair share. He is a man who believes in diversification to his core. The fabric of Harlem is changing and diversity is key. The time for complacency is over, and Leon has never been one to let grass grow under his feet.

“I think entrepreneurs need to take advantage of opportunities when they arise. People don’t always want the same thing. Sometimes they want different things in life.”

Heeding his own advice after the launch of Harlem Underground, Leon’s next venture went in a totally different direction—one that would shed light on the visionary that he was about to become.

Eight and a half years ago, at the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 119th Street, amid burned out buildings, empty lots and a crack house up the block, Leon was able to see beyond the bleak façade that everyone else homed in on. He took a chance on his imagination, ingenuity and business savvy. The end result is Moca Lounge, an oh-so-cool dining and lounging spot with a smooth urban vibe that is still thriving today.

“When people found out I wanted to open Moca in that location, they thought I had lost my mind,” he laughed. “There was nothing like that there. Nothing. People were afraid of Harlem for the wrong reasons: the perception of rampant crime—the reputation that it earned; it’s a misnomer. There was an adverse environment created to believe that. It’s just not true.”

So did Leon open Moca to dispel the myth that Harlem was a hotbed of crime and lawlessness? Not exactly. But what he did accomplish, and unwittingly so, perhaps, was to become the pioneer of Harlem’s “Restaurant Row” by opening one of the first viable commercial spaces on the Boulevard. Of course, others followed suit, but Moca was the start of it all.

From a tee shirt store to a lounge. What would be next for Leon?

Harlem soon found out in November of 2010 with the opening of Chocolat Restaurant Lounge, an upscale eatery one block up from Moca at the corner of Frederick Douglass Boulevard and 120th Street.

A Taste of Chocolat

Chocolat. The name evokes silky soulful comforting smoothness. Just like chocolate. And it works.

“I wanted a variation on the word ‘chocolate’ because I love chocolate,” Leon said. It’s also a name that has immense appeal to the fairer sex—women—and is an amazing draw. “We get a lot of female customers in here,” Leon quietly laughed.

Chocolat, with seating for 120, is an open, airy corner space that gets lots of daytime light from its many windows. Throughout the restaurant, hues of brown and blue abound. The elongated curved bar with a blue illuminated façade is perfect for an after work cocktail. Comfortable banquettes line the length of one window, soft jazz and R&B filter from the overhead speakers, and, for a more exclusive and intimate affair, a private room is available. The original pieces of artwork adorning the walls are from local artists and add to the smooth, urban vibe of the space.

Chocolat is a place to see and be seen. Executive Chef Anthony Williamson has crafted a menu from appetizers through desserts that keep loyal customers coming back for more. The drinks menu has some impressive offerings with names like “Dark & Stormy,” with Black Seal dark rum and ginger beer with lime, or the “Blue Chocolat Ice Tea,” a mélange of rum, gin, vodka, triple sec, blue curaco and sour mix.

Like every restaurateur who intends to be more than just a flash in the pan, Leon has a vision for Chocolat, and it’s a grand one, indeed.

“I would like to see a Chocolat in every major U.S. city.”

That’s a tall order. But then again, Leon is a man who dreams big . . . and succeeds.

“A greasy spoon doesn’t dictate all food,” Leon said after a moment of reflection. “There are lots of ‘food people’ in Harlem. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity they are. People in Harlem know good food when they taste it. Chocolat is a great restaurant that serves great food with great service . . . that happens to be in Harlem.”

And indeed, Chocolat isn’t designed for people of a certain ethnic background, color or creed. It is for people who have an appreciation for food, crave a relaxing cocktail or desire a comforting place to go and unwind after a hard day.

On the Horizon

As if Leon weren’t busy enough, he plans to open Honeycomb Burger, a gourmet burger eatery serving more than just your average burger. Located on Frederick Douglass Boulevard as well, next to Chocolat, Honeycomb Burger will serve grass-fed beef burgers that are affordable and nutritious. On the menu will also be veggie burgers, turkey burgers and smoothies, among other items. A sit-down family-oriented establishment with a projected opening in early fall 2011, Honeycomb will be open late and will have a seating capacity of around 100.

Here again, Leon is thinking with diversity in mind. There were many options that he had to choose from for his next business venture, but ultimately he kept coming back to burgers. Why?

“We know how to do burgers.” You can’t get more succinct than that.

On Success

Leon Ellis is a man who has succeeded in life. He has traversed an often long, sometimes hard, but always rewarding road to get to where he is today. Despite his accomplishments, tinges of shy modesty lace his words when he speaks about his mini-empire.

“I feel successful when I deliver a product that people enjoy,” he says softly. “Success isn’t always the embodiment of money.” Leon shares these words of wisdom on being successful and persevering. “The opportunity to succeed is gratifying. It takes a leap of faith to start, believe and endure as an entrepreneur,” he states. “Oh yes, and staying focused is very important.”

Sage words to live by from a man who continues to blaze a path—not one of destruction but one of creation.

For more on Leon Ellis’ business ventures:

Harlem Underground
20 East 125th Street

Moca Lounge
2210 Frederick Douglass Boulevard

Chocolat Restaurant Lounge
2217-23 Frederick Douglass Boulevard

About Valerie Albarda (35 Articles)
Valerie is a lover of all things food, including writing about it and devouring it. An avid traveler, she loves to soak up the culture of the places she visits and explore the culinary treasures wherever she goes. She is the author of "An Affair to Remember: Bellissimo Italia" which chronicles her traveling and dining experience in Venice, Florence and the Tuscan countryside. Valerie is currently working on her second book, "From City to Safari: One Woman's Exploration of Johannesburg".