The arrival of Whole Foods in East Harlem has been something of a double-edged sword, signaling gentrification and rising rents on the one hand, jobs and fresh food on the other. But for Clinton Shabazz, the Harlem Pie Man, it has been an opportunity all the way.
Shabazz has lived in Harlem for 40 years, and he’s been feeding the neighborhood for 27 of them. He is warm and affable, someone in the habit of working with the public and having a good time doing it. In those 27 years he has gone from street sales to Whole Foods supplier, providing the upmarket chain with cakes, cookies, and pies from a bustling incubator kitchen in the east part of the neighborhood.
“The carrot cakes are really going quickly,” he says. And it’s not only Whole Foods customers who like them: “That’s the only one I can’t stop eating,” he says, laughing. “I tell myself that I’ll have a little piece with my coffee and that’s a problem, cause I’ll eat the whole cake!”
The arrival of Whole Foods to Harlem two years ago signaled a shift in the neighborhood. “It’s changed a bit,” he says. “Some for the better. The only bad thing about that is its basically unaffordable to live here. Rents are just insane.”
High overheads in Harlem can be a limiting factor for entrepreneurs like Shabazz. That makes shared incubator kitchens, like the Hot Bread Kitchen Shabazz works out of on Park Avenue and 115th Street, an essential resource for businesses that want to grow and keep a toehold in a changing neighborhood, but avoid the overhead of a brick and mortar space.
It was Hot Bread Kitchen’s founder, Jessamyn Rodriguez, who first introduced Shabazz to Whole Foods’ suppliers. The process, from first meeting to putting his products on the shelves, wasn’t a fast one—the company wanted to check back along Shabazz’ supply chain, examining all of his ingredients and suppliers. And his Whole Foods sales still don’t make up the bulk of the Harlem Pie Man’s business, but is a nice extra, he says.
Over the clanks and buzz of the industrial kitchen behind him, Shabazz’ explains that, like so many in the business, his interest in baking was sparked by watching his mother. An asthmatic child, he wasn’t able to play outside as much as his peers, but at least this meant he was often around to lick the bowl. It didn’t occur to him to consider baking for a career, though. “At that time I didn’t go into baking because it was a bit of a feminine thing,” he says. “Growing up around my crew, it just wouldn’t bode well during that time!”
But he changed his mind after his first career, as an electronics technician for New York Telephone (later to become Verizon), began to bore him. Instead, in the early nineties, he decided to set up on his own and began selling cheesecake in Harlem. “I walked from river to river along 125th Street, all the way east, all the way west, with a tray selling pies.”
After some initial success, Shabazz began to expand his range, branching out into bean pies. The bean pie has an illustrious history. A symbol of the Nation of Islam, the pie was promoted by civil rights leaders as an African American alternative to the high-fat, high-sugar slave diet that the sweet potato pie embodied. “At the beginning I had one of these little tiny stoves, I was only able to bake six pies at a time,” says Shabazz. “And so I would do 12 pies, come out with one of those little folding tables TV tables and sell on the street, and then go back and make some more.” The whole process, from bake to sale, took four or five hours, he says.
Several years after beginning to bake commercially, Shabazz got a kitchen space in A now defunct Harlem market, Mart 125. The space opened in 1979 with a view to bringing street vendors indoors but closed in 2001. “Then I had to regroup because I didn’t have the money to start a brick and mortar,” says Shabazz. But he kept at it—the work satisfies him.
“I like instant gratification,” says Shabazz. “I make something, people like it, I get the feedback right away and it’s something I’m in control of. It’s my own time, making my own products.”
Shabazz has been working out of his East Harlem incubator kitchen for five years now. He likes to use local, organic ingredients, he explains, bought from the vast Hunts Point market in the Bronx, the largest wholesale produce market in the world. As he speaks, he doesn’t stop moving, applying labels to his most recent creations —an oatmeal cookie and more carrot cake—by hand. He works mostly as a one-man band, though he’ll hire temporary staff for busy times and holidays, and he sets his own hours, starting round 8am and normally finishing in the late afternoon.
In an ever evolving city, staying successful requires a strong stomach. “It’s a hard business and you have to have a certain kind of personality and temperament,” says Shabazz. “I’m nice, but when I come into the bakery, I have to get things done.”