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Chef Melvin “Boots” Johnson serves up hundreds of piping-hot, made-from-scratch, fluffy biscuit sandwiches every day through Harlem Biscuit Company in New York City. Named after Black icons like Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Dee, the sandwiches are lovingly handmade by Boots in the back of a Harlem bar. The most popular is the Langston: fried chicken, pickles, onion, and chili-garlic honey, recommended on a sweet buttermilk biscuit.
Boots learned to make biscuits the old-school way from his grandmother. “I always tell everybody I cook like a 60-year-old Black woman,” he jokes. And he has a vision for what he wants patrons to experience when they first bite into one of his biscuits.
“Everyone can relate to a Southern-style biscuit when it’s made by hand, and it was made like your grandmother,” he says. “I want you to eat my biscuits and feel that you’re transported back to your grandmother’s brownstone and she’s sitting at her table and telling stories about when her and pop-pop moved from Mississippi to the city.”
Turning a tough situation into Harlem Biscuit Company
Harlem Biscuit Company’s very existence is an act of resiliency.
Boots, a nickname given to him by his mom, had been laid off from his restaurant job last March and denied unemployment. Not knowing what was next, the 2018 Chopped: Grill Masters winner wanted to use his 30 years of cooking experience to help raise money for a local urgent care center that was struggling under the weight of the pandemic. He set up shop in his New Rochelle, New York, garage and started cooking up chicken and biscuits.
“I went on the Nextdoor app. I posted, ‘Hey, do you know that the Chopped: Grill Masters champion lives in your neighborhood? Well, he’s cooking today.’ Next thing you know, I have 30 orders from moms who are just excited to not be cooking on a Friday night,” Boots remembers.
He turned this into his routine throughout the summer, posting the menu on Mondays and serving up meals for pickup on Fridays.
“I had to rent a deep fryer. I had my smoker going. I’m doing like 30 chickens, 30 slabs of ribs, mac and cheese, collard greens, biscuits,” recalls the self-taught soul food chef. “And then people started asking for more biscuits.”
At first, Boots was surprised that the biscuits were getting so much attention, particularly since he didn’t specialize in baking. But, he realized, his intense focus on flavor made his biscuits really stand out.
“I was just putting out biscuits and I started really trying them out like, well, I might have something here with the flavor profiles … I’m attacking a biscuit like a savory chef,” he explains.
That’s when a lightbulb went off. He met with his friend and now business partner Warren Satchell, and the two decided to pursue a venture making fresh biscuits and biscuit sandwiches. They wanted to test out the concept, so they did a pop-up in New York City’s East Village neighborhood. The pop-up wasn’t as successful as Boots and Satchell had hoped it would be, but they didn’t give up. Boots called up a bar owner in Harlem who he used to work with, and asked if he could use his space at 67 Orange Street to make biscuits. The bar owner told him he had two weeks to see if the biscuits were a good bet. Turns out, they were.
“In those two weeks people went crazy,” says Boots, adding that a couple of social media influencers from Harlem posted about his endeavor. “[People were] coming from all over … because they posted about these biscuits and they’re putting pictures up all over social media.”
Harlem Biscuit Company was born.
Rising to the challenge
Nearly six months later, Harlem Biscuit Company is busier than ever. Going from working at a large restaurant to being an entrepreneur has had its challenges. Boots and Satchell have had to handle tasks that, in the past, would have been handled by other employees, from launching a website to pulling data reports to implementing contactless ordering.
“We had to force ourselves to come out of the kitchen and really learn. I’m a restaurateur, and I know everything about building a restaurant, but that technology part of it, I was trying to stay away from it as much as I possibly could,” says Boots. “Using all those tools now, I’ve gotten very comfortable with them, because I had to.”
Technology enables Boots and Satchell to see a lot of future possibilities, from shipping their biscuits nationally to offering retail options like frozen biscuits and their homemade spreads at grocery stores.
“We recognize that technology is key to making sure that operationally we’re getting things right, and that could spear out to so many different touch points with respect to our brand experience,” says Satchell, who previously worked for fashion and tech brands. “I’m thinking, 12, 18, 24 months out; I’m thinking about system integrations, technology that ultimately benefits and sets us up for the long haul — not just a band-aid solution.”
Kneading out the kinks
Boots and Satchell are still working out of the bar, and quickly growing out of a space that was never meant for the type of baking they are doing. As they look to the future, they are hoping to get their own brick-and-mortar location in Harlem. Still, they are grateful for the opportunity to use this time and the constraints they face to work any kinks out of their business. It’s a smart way to help them avoid mistakes that might be more costly when they have their own storefront.
“This relationship between Harlem Biscuit Company and this bar has afforded us this opportunity to really prove a concept. This is the time, this is the space, this is the opportunity that we need to essentially perfect everything from an operational standpoint,” Satchell says. “… If we can’t hit it in this space, we can’t hit it anywhere else.”
No matter where they go from here, what keeps Boots going, he says, is faith; faith that the biscuits are truly good and faith that the community in Harlem — and beyond — will continue recognizing the love he puts into everything he serves.
“When a chef puts something in a customer’s face, we get instant gratification,” Boots says. “They taste it and I can see their reaction. They taste my spirit. That’s what gets me up in the morning so I can do this every day.”
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