Clinton's Help for Harlem Restaurants: "Fire Your Employees"

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Former president Bill Clinton wants to give a hand to Harlem eateries. In October, the Post reported that Clinton's foundation was announcing plans to "strengthen restaurants" in the neighborhood through the Harlem Restaurant Program.

Nine months later, only a small number of restaurant owners, about a dozen, are taking the help.

Karl Franz Williams, a tall, dread-locked Yale grad and owner of Society Cafe, a popular place at 114th Street and Fredrick Douglas Blvd, remembers how excited he and others were to hear that Clinton was getting involved with Harlem food joints. "Harlem is a complex market,"  Williams says.

But Williams says that business owners were disappointed when they realized that the former president's foundation wouldn't be offering Harlem restaurants any money. After they heard that, many stopped coming to meetings. "We need money." Williams remembers people saying at the foundation's first session, "Are you guys going to help me get a loan?"

In an e-mail to the Voice, the Clinton Foundation explained that, "Building on President Clinton's longstanding commitment to supporting Harlem's small business community, the Clinton Foundation launched the Harlem Restaurant Program. The program offers skills workshops led by industry experts to help local restaurateurs better understand their industry and address daily challenges."

In other words, the foundation offers struggling Harlem restaurants...advice. That doesn't fly with some.  

"I'm really smart. I could read a book," says  Sharon Joseph, who owns Harlem Lanes on 126th Street and 7th Ave. She questions the usefulness of a program that supplies knowledge but no funds.

Joseph attended two of the classes, and  says they were great, but her biggest concern as the owner of a 25,000 square foot bowling alley with fifty employees, a sports bar, restaurant and catering service is that the poor economy has reduced her credit line. Joseph wonders why Clinton, who attended her ribbon cutting ceremony three years ago and sends her
notes to check up on the bowling alley, hasn't found a way to set up microlending for Harlem eating houses.

But the non-profit takes a firm stance against lending: "The Clinton Foundation is not a grant-making organization, and does not distribute grants, scholarships or funding for outside
projects," spokesperson Angel Ureña writes in an email.

Williams, the Society Cafe owner, respects that outlook. But he is disappointed that attendance has ben sparse at the sessions, which amount to two-hour classes on subjects like "operations" and "marketing."

Williams says he's found the project helpful. One class in particular, Williams recollects,
helped convince him to fire seven under-performing staff.  

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