Preserving Harlem’s Culture and History through Food: Jelena Pasic’s Story

How can a single mom overcome adversity to build a successful restaurant franchise that preserves a neighborhood’s unique culture?

In this episode, Jelena Pasic, founder and CEO of Harlem Shake, shares her journey from Croatian immigrant to thriving entrepreneur. After falling in love with Harlem during her visits to a local gym, Jelena decided to create a burger joint that celebrates the neighborhood’s vibrant history and culture.

Jelena discusses the challenges of starting a business as a newly single mother and the importance of having faith, self-love, and a clear vision for the future. She also emphasizes the value of patience and perseverance in pursuing one’s passions.

As the author of “The Food and the City,” Jelena aims to inspire other women to overcome their fears and pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. She shares practical advice for aspiring business owners, such as learning from others, mapping out a long-term plan, and surrounding oneself with supportive people.

Jelena sees Harlem Shake as more than just a restaurant – it’s a way to give back to the community and preserve Harlem’s unique identity. Through initiatives like the annual Miss Harlem Shake fundraiser, the company supports local nonprofits and showcases the neighborhood’s diverse talents.

 

Mentors that Inspired Jelena:

  • Arlene Blake – a culinary marketing expert who has been a mentor and sounding board for Jelena
  • Emil Radoncic – one of Jelena’s main partners who took a leap of faith and decided to join the project after a brief meeting
  • DarDra Coaxum – a well-known figure in Harlem who introduced Jelena to key people in the neighborhood, including Harlem Shake’s designer Dennis Decker

 

Tune in for insights on overcoming adversity, pursuing your passions, and building a business that makes a positive impact on your community.

LISTEN TO THE FULL EPISODE HERE

Transcript

Intro  

Welcome to another edition of inspired stories where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes, how they’ve overcome adversity, and explore current challenges they’re facing.

Anthony Codispoti (02:41.622)
Welcome to another edition of the Inspired Stories podcast where leaders share their experiences so we can learn from their successes and be inspired by how they’ve overcome adversity. My name is Anthony Codaspoti and today’s guest is Jelena Pasic, founder and CEO of Harlem Shake, a fast casual restaurant that serves up burgers, shakes and good times the Harlem way.

We’re going to hear about why community involvement and social responsibility are so important to Yelena and the Harlem Shake brand. And while they are still an up and coming restaurant concept, Yelena has already been featured in several publications, including New York Business Journal, the New York Times, Food and Wine, The Guardian and Cosmopolitan.com. Before we get into the good stuff, today’s episode is brought to you by my company,

Anthony Codispoti (03:38.718)
and unique employee benefits that are both great for your team and fiscally optimized for your bottom line. One recent client was able to save over $900 per employee per year by implementing one of our proprietary programs. Results vary for each company and some organizations may not be eligible. To find out if your company qualifies, contact us today at addb Now back to our guest today, the CEO and founder of Harlem Shake, Yelena, I appreciate you making the time to share your story today.

Jelena Pasic (04:08.502)
Hi, hi. Thank you for inviting me. I appreciate it.

Anthony Codispoti (04:11.606)
Absolutely. So I’m guessing a good place to start would be with a question that you probably hear a lot. How is it that a beautiful blonde immigrant comes to start a restaurant concept called Harlem Shake? How did that happen?

Jelena Pasic (04:26.866)
Well, it was a whole process and I would certainly say there were many moving bits and pieces that I had no idea were going to happen before I opened it. So maybe it was, you know, the hand of fate, God or whatever you want to call it. But how it really started is by me actually attending gym in Harlem for about nine years before I opened Harlem Shake. I used to have a family business in a nearby neighborhood.

that was a little bit uptown from Harlem, if you believe that exists, but it does. That was Washington Heights and the nearest gym at that time that was back in 2004 was the New York sports clubs on 125th street and me being an avid, you know, workout fan, uh, started, you know, going to that gym like two to three times a week after work and, uh, slowly meeting people, slowly making friends, slowly just.

being so impressed by the beautiful neighborhood, architecture, style, fashion, and everything that Harlem kind of has to show that you might not know from the get-go. I definitely think people, when you say Harlem, have a lot of preconceived ideas, some good, some bad. People are very fascinated with Harlem. But I do also think that those like superficial preconceived ideas that are not necessarily what Harlem is all about. And I came to learn that over the years of

being involved and becoming friends with people from Harlem. So fast forward, five, six years, it was about 2009, 2010. Personally, I was going through a really tough time. I was going through a divorce and I was a mom of two kids, two girls that were at that time, like elementary school age. And I was really pondering what to do with my life. I…

had the option of maybe working for someone. I was on a contract, I knew that was expiring. We sold our businesses at that point of profit and I had to stop and think what I really want to do. And then I realized that I really want to move to Harlem or do something in Harlem because that’s sort of like where I was attracted to. I was just attracted by the neighborhood and by the people.

Jelena Pasic (06:47.73)
And I felt more at home, so to speak, than in other places in New York City. I also realized I wanted to start my own thing and continue that entrepreneurship passion that I’ve always kind of had hidden. But by that time, I honestly wasn’t brave enough to really open my wings and fly on my own. And that was in my late 30s. It was a moment of reckoning of what I’m going to do.

found a location through a friend who is a Harlem native. That was one of our first investors. And he connected me with the landlord and the location was not on the market. I immediately thought this was gonna be great. And then I met my other partners and my first investors and quickly got to sign that lease. Before we even did that, I mean, I was looking around Harlem for…

probably two to three years because we signed the lease in 2012. So while I was like preparing my entrepreneurial journey, I kept like looking slowly and scouting and even thinking about like 2009, 2010, I didn’t think it was ready yet economically. You know, as you know, we were just outside of that like housing crisis. There was a like a recession going on and Harlem had a few places that inspired me. One of them was called native.

Another one was called Setepani. If you would go to native and Setepani on a Sunday morning, you would see all these fabulous people with like really beautiful clothes and hats. And, you know, you would see that cultural scene of Harlem at its best. Another thing that inspired me was street life, you know, hip hop culture, all kinds of color, colorful thing. There is a whole African subculture that’s going on in Harlem. So there is all these different parts of the melting pot, which I found so

full of life, so full of color, so full of inspiration. And I just wasn’t sure that economically my investment was going to be worthwhile because I was, as I said, just coming out of a pretty tough divorce, I had a small, I was relatively young, so I had a small retirement savings. And I had to put it all on a gamble to open my own place. I also had two children that I was, you know,

Jelena Pasic (09:12.95)
having a custody of at that point or had to take care of two elementary school children. So the gamble risk was high. So I became encouraged about opening Harlem Shake when I saw first Red Rooster in 2010, and then Coroner Social opening in 2011, I believe, or maybe end of 2010. And I said, okay, time is ripe. It looks like, you know, people are really like flocking to Harlem. And if I do this, it’s going to be okay. There is enough.

Anthony Codispoti (09:41.674)
And these were restaurants that opened in Harlem that gave you confidence that there was a market to support it.

Jelena Pasic (09:47.735)
Yeah, it’s a very famous place. It’s by Chef Marcus Samuelson. That was one of the first big establishments that opened in Harlem. Like I said, Native and Set-A-Pani were sort of precursors to that. And then before Native and Set-A-Pani, you had that whole layer of neighborhood institutions, which unfortunately, most of them are closed today. When I say those institutions, I’m talking

Centnicks Pub. Pam Pams was already closed when I started coming to Harlem, but Centnicks Pub and Lennox Lounge were still open and they were one of my favorite places to go. They had probably been around for like decades at that point, right? Lennox Lounge I think was around for like 70, 80 years and Centnicks, I wouldn’t tell you because I wasn’t born in this country. I don’t know when they started, but they looked like they’ve been there forever. They had like amazing like jazz jams on a Sunday.

And they had that old school Harlem neighborhood people which really make Harlem what it is. So I was very impressed with that. And I was also really sad when we signed our lease in November of 2012, I moved into Harlem in the meantime, because I really wanted to be close to my new project. I thought I’m going to have to live there anyway, so better be nearby than live far away.

On a New Year’s Day of 2013, I went for a New Year’s Day walk, like at nine o’clock in the morning. I was like very celebratory walking from my apartment to my construction site, and like taking in the sights of the New Year, thinking how all these amazing things are ahead, only to come right across from my construction site was, from our construction site, Harlem Shake, was the Lennox Lounge, which someone ripped.

out completely overnight. So, I was in my shock like on December 31st I was you know going from the construction site and I do apologize my dog is making some noise. And then only to see the next day everything ripped out. It was just incredible. I actually started crying because I didn’t understand what happened overnight and that was just a sign of the times. It’s

Jelena Pasic (12:09.87)
closed the doors and became Wells Fargo. Nothing against Wells Fargo. They have my mortgage, but you know, it’s just a sign of what was going on in Harlem. Yes, a lot. And so one thing that was like very, very important to me and to my partners as well, because I found partners that care about that too, was preserving that old neighborhood feel that Harlem had, that these places had. And I…

Anthony Codispoti (12:17.71)
took some of the character out of the neighborhood.

Jelena Pasic (12:38.966)
Definitely, I’m not a person that, you know, I’m not African American and I don’t consider, obviously Harlem Shake, we have a very diverse ownership. We have several owners of all colors, besides myself, but we don’t, you know, wanna tout ourselves as a black establishment or black brand because that would just not be right. We do wanna say that we are very mindful and respectful of the Harlem culture and history and try to celebrate it because…

There is so many places that opened in Harlem right about the time or like a little bit after we opened when Harlem became, you know, walked into its new renaissance of 2014 and 15, so many places opened and they brought entirely different things and a new culture, but they had no regard of that Harlem of old. And I wanted us to be diametrically opposite. They wanted us to be very mindful.

Anthony Codispoti (13:36.514)
You’re respecting the traditional culture that’s existed in Harlem for a long time.

Jelena Pasic (13:40.226)
I come from Europe, I am Croatian by birth, and I grew up in Croatia until I was 25. And one thing that strikes me for United States is that people here, or the government here, doesn’t landmark things as much as we do in Europe. So yes, we do have landmark blocks and we have landmark buildings, but not to that extent. So all parts of cities get wiped out.

due to commercial interests and institutions such as Lennox Lounge, which in my opinion should have been landmark, are not. And that kind of erases the historical value of places. And we can talk about doom spirals and all things that are happening constantly in the United States, but I thought that was wrong from my perspective coming from Europe. So that was…

Anthony Codispoti (14:30.326)
So what was the previous business that you were in? You mentioned when you were going through the difficult divorce, you had a business that you sold. Was it in the restaurant space?

Jelena Pasic (14:38.042)
Yeah, so when I first moved here, I actually used to work for a multinational company in Croatia and just after graduating, I moved here. Honestly, I wasn’t intending to stay, but then I met my first husband and we opened a small coffee shop. I came kind of on a student visa. You know, things took a different turn. We opened a small coffee shop in Washington Heights and then another…

one and then a pizza and pasta and grill shop and then a full service restaurant. So like in a span of maybe four years, we had four establishments and two children. And that was a little bit much for my 33 year old self and for my ex, I’m sure. So yeah, things didn’t work out on a personal level. There was just a lot of pressure, but you know, businesses were successful and always, I really found my calling like

Anthony Codispoti (15:16.75)
lot.

Jelena Pasic (15:31.406)
through those first businesses because from when I was a kid, I love cooking and I always looked at my grandmothers and I really have that passion for food. Also, I love food anthropology. I love exploring different cuisines and reading on that. And I can show you my collection of cookbooks. I mean, I have massive amount of cookbooks. I kind of hoard them from all around the world. But, you know,

I worked in a multinational company in Croatia and I’m an economist by education. So I wasn’t sure that I was going to go into the restaurant business until I came to the United States. I think what helped me make that choice was the fact that I’m an immigrant. So this is like a very traditional immigrant profession. Otherwise, probably I wouldn’t end up doing that. But then when I did…

Anthony Codispoti (16:25.262)
So you came here on a student visa just to kind of like box things, summarize, and then you met your husband, now your ex-husband, you had a couple of kids, you opened several establishments, kind of got bit by the restaurant bug. And so then you go through this painful divorce, you sell the businesses and you’re like, okay, what’s next? It’s time for a rebirth of Yelena, right? Like what does the next chapter look like?

Jelena Pasic (16:30.011)
Bye.

Jelena Pasic (16:50.242)
Yeah, it was time of maybe birth of Yael and not the rebirth. Yeah, I think honestly I wasn’t know what I was made of. I was a part of that bigger machine. It was my ex’s family and it was a great part and I learned so much. But I was never really thinking that I’m capable or able or that I have that founder thing in me. So…

Anthony Codispoti (16:55.354)
Okay. The first coming, huh?

Jelena Pasic (17:21.25)
Then things just started going on their own. And I said, maybe I do have it. Let me test my luck. I was supported by a lot of people that I should thank. My cousin, Nenad, who lives in LA, was one of the first believers in the Eleanor. So if it wasn’t for him, even with my modest 401k savings, I doubt I would have been able to pull that off. My friend, Ellingston, who was our first investor and who helped me with the location, believed in me. Then my…

One of my main partners, Emil, who came on board right after there, honestly, if it wasn’t for his propensity for taking a leap of fate, that would probably not happen, because I met Emil on a corner of the location and he made his decision in about 15 minutes that he wants to be in on that project. Maybe it wasn’t me, maybe it was the location, who knows. I think it all worked out for the best.

Anthony Codispoti (18:10.795)
You made quite an impression.

Jelena Pasic (18:21.194)
My friend Dard, who his daughter is our partner, he definitely connected me with the right people in the neighborhood. Dard is a very well-known figure in Harlem and his daughter is now also a very well-known figure and my partner in crime, so to speak. He introduced us to our designer, Dennis Decker, so it was really a collective effort. I have to say, of course, I kind of was the glue that held everything together.

But it wasn’t just one person, it’s a village that makes a baby, you know, and that’s how Harlem came, Harlem Shake came.

Anthony Codispoti (18:55.402)
And so what would somebody notice when they walk into a Harlem Shake? What’s different about it? What sets it apart?

Jelena Pasic (19:02.59)
So it looks like it’s been there forever and that’s intentional. So even when it was just opening its door, it looked like it was there forever. So what happened is when we hired Dennis, who had a long career in branding before, you know, doing our interior design, he ordered the New York City Public Library prints from 1967 and 1940. I don’t know if you knew, but every building in New York City has

a historic photograph if it was built before those years. So depending on when it was built, you’ll have at least two sets if it was before 1940 and you’ll have one set if it was after or you’ll have no sets if it was after 67. We were for…

Anthony Codispoti (19:46.658)
This was some sort of a city project that took place where they were documenting, you know.

Jelena Pasic (19:50.414)
They’re mandatory stock photography, correct? They documented it. So we ordered this for Harlem Shake and it was so cool. We saw 1940s a restaurant. Later on, Michael Henry Adams, who is one of our Harlem historians, just put up the other day on Facebook another photo, which I was like, wow, I’ve never seen that one. There is another photo of Harlem Shake. I was very happy to see that.

But long story short, we recreated that restaurant from the 1940s. We recreated.

Anthony Codispoti (20:25.454)
So it looks very similar to what was originally at that location.

Jelena Pasic (20:28.67)
copied the photo. So when we took the location over, it had like 100 layers of, you know, dry walls and drop ceilings. And it was like many different things over the ages. It was a liquor shop, it was a butcher shop, it was, you could see those things because of the interior workings of the place and all the all the partitions. And it had no storefront, somebody had a genius idea, I guess, in the nineties to completely break off the storefront. So maybe it was on

unsafe neighborhood at the time or era, right? So we don’t know what caused them to do that, but they totally closed up the place. So we broke all these bricks and returned the storefront. We found the original hexagonal unglazed tile when we were doing the demo. We found the color cream and green on the walls, which we could tell they were there from all under the layers of the

Jelena Pasic (21:22.998)
from the original establishment. So these became our brand colors, the floor became our brand floor, and the photograph became our, you know, inspiration, and the thin ceiling, we refurbished the original thin ceiling, which you can still see in the place. So place just, you know, looks like it’s been there forever. That’s one thing that would be interesting. Another thing,

is that the idea was really genius. I think that Dennis had a genius idea to create it as if mom and pop opened the place in the like a second half of 20th century. And as they opened the place, they didn’t have much money, but as they made a little money here and a little money there, they would add elements of style. So you have like a Formica from the 60s, you have Miss Harlem Shake with an afro from the 70s. You have those other fixtures that look like 50s, you know, the rounded curb diner style things.

So all these things create a very unique ambience that’s very recognizable. And I think we’ve been written up for so many of these things. For example, we’ve been written up in New York Times for our jet magazine wall. So we have a biggest collection of jet magazines in our bathroom that we were buying on eBay, like at all times of night. So that came out right in 2014. And of all things, we were written up for our toilet.

Anthony Codispoti (22:47.624)
It was your bathroom.

Jelena Pasic (22:49.751)
I mean, we were written up about food a lot as well. So that kind of balances things out, right? It’s not just the… It’s not just not…

Anthony Codispoti (22:57.134)
You’re not a one trick pony. You’ve got a cool bathroom and great food. Tell me about the food. What’s the cuisine like? What can people expect?

Jelena Pasic (23:06.43)
Simple, very true to its origins and no nonsense and doesn’t change much. We worked so much on streamlining our operations because we’re franchising and creating a very workable system. But culinarily speaking, it all started right at the very beginning in 2013.

Decision to open a burger joint for me was purely pragmatic. I’m gonna be honest It was not my labor of love to have burgers because I honestly am NOT a huge burger fan being that I’m from Croatia if you ask me my personal Preferences would be like fish and olive oil and stuff like that because I’m from the coastal part of Croatia So I’m kind of like a truly Mediterranean person But at that point again, I wanted to make sure the investment

you know, brings us value. And having been involved in the coffee shops as well as full service restaurants before opening Harlem Shake, I had the good opportunity to compare how both of these models operate and how profitable both of these models are. And what I’ve learned is that full service restaurants, you know, are making a massive amount of profits on wine, beer and liquor.

Uh, and they are much more labor intensive and obviously, um, they demand attention in the evening hours. So my, uh, personal challenge was that I was a single mom of two elementary school girls. And to me, it didn’t look like I could jeopardize raising them in, in a safe way by being gone all night, most of the days. So that’s one of the big factors that influenced the decision to not.

you know, going to the full restaurant business. Then another thing was, okay, what Harlem really needs now? What is missing here? So it was kind of clear that burgers were missing, even though we had started to see Shake Shack on every corner in the city, Uptown had no such establishment at that point, right? So my friend, Alex, and again, coming back to him, really was like, oh, what if you did the burger joint? That was honestly his idea.

Jelena Pasic (25:25.794)
And I said, yeah, and Ellingston is one of our investors now. So he’s part of the, you know, part of the company. So I said, yeah, that’s, that sounds like a great idea. And he thought, what if you called it Harlem Shake? So I was like, yeah, that sounds like a great name. So, so we went and trademarked the name, like maybe three days later.

Anthony Codispoti (25:45.202)
And shake is sort of a play on both like a milkshake as well as like kind of like shaking, like dancing, like moving your body.

Jelena Pasic (25:51.982)
There’s a very famous dance in Harlem called the Harlem Shake that came up in the 80s. It was in the Rocker Park where the basketball courts are, where there was in fact an alcoholic called Al B who would do a Harlem Shake for a quarter. So he would be doing the Harlem Shake so he can get a quarter, right? So then it was picked up by… Yeah, show me. I like that. Well, I’m not very good at it. I’m not a Harlem native. So I think you should see some of it.

Anthony Codispoti (26:12.258)
And so what is it? It’s like a shoulder kinda, okay.

Jelena Pasic (26:21.238)
the Harlem natives do it much better than me. But if you really wanna see the Harlem Shake, you can go to Harlem Shake and we have a huge life-size hologram where first Miss Harlem Shake does the move. So as you move past the life-size photo of her, you can see the whole Harlem Shake move. Yeah, going back to the food, right? So…

Anthony Codispoti (26:38.775)
our call.

Anthony Codispoti (26:42.906)
That’s fun.

Jelena Pasic (26:47.25)
Okay, we decided it’s gonna be shakes. We decided it’s not gonna be nighttime. It’s gonna be family-oriented place. So moms like me can enjoy it, and families can enjoy it. And we decided it’s gonna be fast casual, so we don’t have to bog ourselves down with like late night business. And then it was time to select the menu. And starting to do some research, I came across a food rider.

that was at that time already starting to be a little famous, but he’s way more famous now. Right now he’s a food writer for New York Times and he’s done many, many impressive things over the past 10 years. When I first met Kenji Lopez out, he was living in a high-rise on 131st Street, which was six blocks from Harlem Shake. And when I called, emailed him, asking him if he would be interested in helping us.

food tasting and creation of the menu. It was because I saw his article about how to knock off the Shake Shack burger. That prompted me to email Kenji and tell him, hey, maybe you can have an idea of how we can get a good menu going. And he was so forthcoming. He was like, yeah, oh my gosh, I love the idea. I grew up in Harlem and my grandparents lived on 125th and Amsterdam. I would love to help do something like this so we can have a burger establishment.

We didn’t try to knock off Shake Shack Burger, but we wanted to create a good burger menu. So that.

Anthony Codispoti (28:20.37)
And you knew that he was sort of aligned to this burger mission because of the article that he had written, you’d say. And so you thought, oh, he’d be a great person to connect.

Jelena Pasic (28:28.311)
Yeah, he was a serious eats writer and I used to like eat serious eats for breakfast because I loved the publication and as I told you I’m passionate about reading about food so I loved his writing and in case not to try to advertise him but if you look at his cookbook The Food Lab and The Walk I think they’re the most fun cookbooks because he intertwines recipes and very elaborate

scientific data and interesting scientific things about food that he brings up from his MIT background, because he used to go to MIT as well. So he kind of connects science and food, but even more interestingly, he then intertwines it with his personal stories about his wife and himself and his kids in this very fun and lighthearted approach. So the book is like a size of an encyclopedia, but you can’t stop reading it. So I think…

That’s why I loved reading his stuff. Anyways, back to the Harlem Shake menu, we started tasting the different milks and different ice creams, came up with Shake menu, basic one, and then started tasting the meat and came up with the food menu. And definitely, it’s Kenji’s working, right? The menu was Kenji’s working, and it is to date. I’ve added some things over the past few years, as far as specials go.

Kenji went in the direction of owning a place, moved out to West Coast, owns a place there, and then went on to become a food writer for New York Times and published a few books. And he’s very famous, if you look at him on internet. He’s still very active in the food scene. But then, yeah, that was the food for Harlem Shake. Very important, fresh, never frozen. So our meat is from Patlafrieda. We never compromised that. I believe when you would be able to

find the winning recipe, it’s necessary and important to stick with it and not change it too much. Because a lot of times I see people having restaurants and then get excited about over experimentation. I might be boring, but I think that consistency is always like what creates…

Jelena Pasic (30:41.994)
what creates iconic places, right? It’s the consistency that…

Anthony Codispoti (30:46.35)
Customers know what they can expect.

Jelena Pasic (30:48.858)
Yeah, and of course, being true to the excellence, right? I think we were working on our company values a couple of weeks ago, and it was so great. We came up as a management team and we said, let’s reset our company values because we need to, like, as we were going and growing the business now, we need to have a very solid base of company values. We sort of never kind of rode them out. And you know what I loved? Like, the team said, oh, we’re masters of our trade.

Jelena Pasic (31:19.804)
We are passionate about excellence. Yeah, that can sound like a cliche, but actually if you think about being masters of your trade and being passionate about excellence matters when it comes to consistency and truly making simplicity be excellent. We are not a fancy place. So it’s not gonna be like you’re gonna get like, you know, a cloud of foam that…

that some drips of rain are dripping from. I’ve seen a thing on Instagram, I really wanna taste it. It sounds fantastic, there’s a Michelin restaurant in Spain that does that. So like the thing floats on top of your plate and the water drips into it. We’re not that place, we are a simple place. But you can always expect that it’s gonna be fresh, never frozen, excellent, excellently prepared food. And that we’re passionate about delivering that simple thing in the best way possible to them.

Anthony Codispoti (32:15.594)
And is it lunch only? Is it, do you have dinner as well?

Jelena Pasic (32:18.975)
We do. We have, well, you know, one thing is what we planned and the other thing is what turned out to be so. We are super popular for like, even on Fridays and Saturdays, we have late night till 2 a.m. We only have beer and wine. We’re not a club. We’re not trying to be one. We are seriously focused on our food and the beer and wine is an accompaniment. We have a world class Frosé, which we also trademark.

our signature drink. We are open for lunch and we’re open for dinner and for late night. Before the pandemic, we were also open for breakfast. We have a great breakfast menu, but when we close the breakfast during the pandemic, magically turns out that, you know, streamlining that kind of made us even more profitable. So at that point, we decided we’re not gonna try to serve the community with the breakfast, even though I know a lot of people in the community appreciated a lot our breakfast.

And you know, we have a second location and a third location, so the hours differ a little bit in these other locations.

Anthony Codispoti (33:20.346)
So three current locations and what’s the growth plan? What do you want to see happen with the brand here?

Jelena Pasic (33:25.614)
We can start franchising, so we’re actively focusing on that. And we’re in negotiations for several locations as well. We are not trying to grow fast and reckless. I am personally risk-avert. As you can tell, I was scared to even open my own place to begin with. But I always think.

Anthony Codispoti (33:48.126)
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s completely accurate to call yourself risk averse. I mean, you went from, and we’re gonna get back to this because I wanna get into more of these details, but you went from a very challenging life situation to what you could have gone and gotten a job. That’s not what you decided to do. You went out and decided to start a brand new business, a brand new restaurant. So there’s a little bit of bravery in there.

Jelena Pasic (34:07.762)
I was very scared. That’s what I always tell every woman that I love mentoring women and I love mentoring like young women especially of course. I always tell them like you’re scared so what? Just do it scared. Just make sure with make sure one thing make sure that you really think through without any emotions what are you gonna do and make sure you learn on other like if you’re if you don’t know what you’re doing business-wise don’t open a place.

Make someone else pay for your education. Go work for them and learn there. Make sure that you, you find yourself a good school quote unquote. So find a good place and learn there because you don’t want to be unprepared. You want to be prepared. You want to be business wise prepared. You want to understand your business side. You want to be prepared in terms of your trade, whatever trade that is. And you want to be prepared as a leader. Well, once you hold on, hold down on these three, then don’t.

You’re scared? Yeah, so everybody else is also scared. Just go and do it. Like that’s my

Anthony Codispoti (35:11.23)
And you were able to get that education from the experiences that you had with your now ex-husband in the different restaurant concepts that you opened up. That was kind of your education process.

Jelena Pasic (35:22.59)
Part of it. I mean, I also am, you know, economist by trade. So I was I was a pretty good student. And then I also worked in Procter and Gamble, which is a multinational company that taught me a lot. I worked there while I was like, just kind of on a parallel, I, I had to actually work for my, you know, tuition, I wasn’t like, I don’t come from a very like, I come from humble roots, so to speak. So

I put myself through college by working and I was going to college part-time and working part-time in the latter part of my education. So my third and fourth year I worked full-time and I also went to college. But my work full-time for Procter & Gamble obviously I think taught me more than the college itself. Because Procter & Gamble is a company with such an excellence in how they execute things and

you know, teaching, teaching you about how to be a business person, sales, teaching you the self-discipline, deadlines, delivering on time, all these things. Honestly, I learned from them, not, not from the college or from my entrepreneurial experience. That’s what I’m saying. Like my advice, or, or when I mentor women, I say, prepare yourself and really be honest with yourself about what you’re lacking because dreaming about something is wonderful, but if you actually don’t know how to like,

put a P&L together, how’s that dream gonna translate to reality when it slaps you in the face? So you need to be read.

Anthony Codispoti (36:48.638)
And I think that’s great, like you were able to draw from your own previous experiences and now you’re able to sort of be that inspiration and that mentor to other young women who are trying to pursue their own entrepreneurial dreams. That’s something that must be pretty fulfilling for you.

Jelena Pasic (37:09.395)
I love promoting not only women, but also I love growing people. We invested so far three people that started as employees and became partners in the company because I’m really passionate about the opportunity. And I feel like when people are given the opportunity and they are given the insight of what they can become, their passion to deliver excellent results.

really benefits the company and themselves. So it becomes a win-win situation. A lot of people sometimes don’t feel like so comfortable sharing their business results or their, you know, their growth things with all of their team. I am a big proponent of doing that because if they’re gonna like leave, they’re gonna leave anyways, you can’t force people to stay with you. You need to provide value for them to have a reason to stay with.

And that’s why I think we are lucky that we have people that have been with us for the whole 11 years and grew into positions from a cashier to district manager or from a line cook to a store manager and partners, and kind of learned a lot of these skills along the way. Obviously, at one point of your growth, you need people who will be professional, that are brought into the concept. You can’t just organically grow everyone.

But we always try, we always try to really incorporate and grow people within the company. That’s one big part of our company culture.

Anthony Codispoti (38:41.466)
That was great. Let’s go back to the franchise opportunity. What can, what more can you say about that? Are there other locations that are coming that you can talk about?

Jelena Pasic (38:51.234)
So we just started doing the franchise sales about six months ago. We currently are in talks, I can’t be precise, but we are open for markets. We have a lot of territories available, New York tri-state area, Pennsylvania, South Florida metro, Miami metro area. The buy-in is 40,000. And then if anybody’s interested in buying a franchise, they can go on harl and fill in.

Jelena Pasic (39:19.326)
an inquiry and we can definitely follow up with that. We’re also looking at non-traditional locations such as airports and so forth. So there’s a lot of great opportunities currently. I think we are trying to, not trying, we are franchising because we want to afford people the opportunity to build a dream of their own. And at the same time, I also like to diversify. So besides being in restaurant business, I’m doing some other things for

on a personal level, like investments in real estate. And I want to free up a little bit more of my time so I can sort of tackle both ends. Well, I’m.

Anthony Codispoti (39:59.29)
So are you taking a little step back from Harlem Shake or?

Jelena Pasic (40:04.006)
I’m really not, because I’m full-time working in Halepshek and I intend to do so to continue to grow the brand. I am just saying that instead of growing a corporate… Well, I already have diversified in a way, financially, but I think it’s just a personal decision to sort of explore other things that make me excited. Right. So that’s why.

Anthony Codispoti (40:14.338)
You want to diversify.

Jelena Pasic (40:33.278)
I’m very, very excited still about the growth. Not still, I am absolutely excited about the growth of Harlem Shake and that’s my main, you know, baby. And it’s my main squeeze, my wife or my husband.

Anthony Codispoti (40:47.146)
Now you mentioned some people that really helped to sort of build you up and inspire you in the early stages of deciding to start this business. I’m curious, aside from the folks that you’ve already mentioned, are there other mentors or maybe even books or masterminds or other experiences that were particularly inspirational to you in your career path?

Jelena Pasic (41:10.734)
So I was part of this book project by… I’m so bad with names. I know her first name is Ina because my daughter’s first name is Ina as well. And it’s called The Food and the City. If I can get up, I’ll grab the book from my bookshelf and I’ll show it to you. But I am struggling to remember the last name.

So that being part of that book project and reading that book about the other experiences was definitely very inspiring for me in the beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. Also through common acquaintance, I met Arlene Blake. Arlene is for me has been a mentor and has been an inspiration as a woman and as a person and a huge support. We see each other ever so often.

She’s now in her like, well, I don’t think it’s polite to say the ladies age. So I won’t say, but she’s definitely venerable, you know, woman. She’s had an amazing life and amazing career in culinary marketing. So Arlene is one of the people I always go to when I have, I need someone to like be my bouncing board. My husband has been, my second husband has been my, my really life partner and my biggest

sounding board as well and a huge support and you know he’s involved in the business as well and without him it would be a lot harder to juggle all these, so those are my main people. If you ask for some other publication of book I’m trying to think…

Jelena Pasic (43:00.83)
I mean, no, not nothing particular that strikes my mind. I’m a person of faith. I always like, I always feel like, you know, being, being in tune with like God and what God tells me is a big thing for me. I’m not trying to like push my faith on anyone, but I think if it wasn’t for that, I don’t know if I would have, you know, came as far as I.

I say what is out in the Bible.

Anthony Codispoti (43:23.651)
Uh

Anthony Codispoti (43:27.69)
Any particular passages that you recall that are particularly helpful for you?

Jelena Pasic (43:32.638)
I mean, the proverbs 31 is on my Instagram profile and it really got me going in my darkest moments. I’m pulling up, I’ll tell you exactly what the verse is.

Anthony Codispoti (43:48.046)
And while you’re finding that food in the city, the author’s name is Ina Yaloff.

Jelena Pasic (43:52.686)
In my aloof, yes, in my aloof. True. It is Proverbs 31, 16 to 30. That is…

Anthony Codispoti (44:05.274)
She considers a field and buys it. Out of earnings, she plants a vineyard. Is this the one? Yeah. She sets about her work vigorously. Her arms are strong for her tasks. She sees that her trading is profitable and her lamp does not go out at night. In her hand, she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers. Yeah.

Jelena Pasic (44:10.594)
Yep, that was the one.

Jelena Pasic (44:26.882)
Yeah, and then it goes on. It’s basically what I found to be like inspiration for what I should do with my life.

Anthony Codispoti (44:34.882)
That’s great. What are some interests that you have outside of work? Passions, hobbies?

Jelena Pasic (44:41.814)
I have a lot of interest questions and hobbies. I love skiing, I love scuba diving, I love sailing, I love cooking, I plant a garden, I love herbs. I love my children, my three daughters, now I have three. I really love traveling, obviously I’ve traveled to many places. I can, I always try to travel whenever I can, see new things. Yeah, those would be my interests. Philanthropy.

Anthony Codispoti (45:08.91)
Do you see?

Jelena Pasic (45:11.416)
I love giving to causes that mean something to me.

Anthony Codispoti (45:15.894)
Which causes? What’s close to your heart?

Jelena Pasic (45:18.694)
Normally, it’s always centered around single moms or women in a way, because I think that, you know, it was so hard for me to like break out of that dark moment. And when I did, I found tremendous gratitude. So I was trying to empower other women. Like, we always see those social causes where, you know, there is no free childcare. So we have that vicious cycle in Harlem where, you know, you have a young woman.

coming to work for you and then they can’t figure out the childcare and they started falling off the track and falling back into the vicious cycle. And that’s something always that kind of really makes me upset because, um, it’s, it’s really stunting the growth. It’s just an unfair, you know, but I don’t want to pound on that. We know that’s a, you know, that’s a societal problem. Uh, what will, what I like to contribute to is, you know, contribute to, um, we did, um, now we’re doing through, um,

Miss Harlem Shake 2024, which is our charitable annual event. So every year we elect Miss or Mr. Harlem Shake in Harlem Shake. And what that is, it’s a competition where anybody who is from Harlem can participate. It’s not a beauty pageant and it has nothing to do with beauty. It has to do with being your true authentic self from Harlem and having a cause that you care about. It’s really our way to

contribute to these causes. So when we select or elect our Mr. and Ms. Harlem Shake, they have a nonprofit they care about and then we contribute to that nonprofit. We first write them a thousand dollar check, but then also we, throughout that year of their reign, have different ways of supporting them. So for example, this year, our Ms. Harlem Shake 2024, her nonprofit was Young Lives Manhattan and that’s a nonprofit that helps

single teen parents, whether women or men. In most cases, they’re women, but they can be also single teen dads. So that was a nonprofit we were doing a lot of, you know, optional like opportunity for customers to give to, and we gave to this during two to three fundraisers this past year. Now our Miss Harlem Shake 2023, same one. She’s going on this amazing journey. She’s,

Jelena Pasic (47:43.99)
pediatric nurse, she’s a maternity nurse. So she decided to go on this amazing journey to African countries. And she is going to like five different countries and providing free maternity care and supplies for those understaffed and under resourced hospitals. She has a fundraiser on GoFundMe. And currently we are gonna be raising for that fundraiser now through, I think,

Mother’s Day, which is our 11th anniversary. So every customer shopping in Harlem Shake, either online or in person can contribute to that. Also, I personally helped a little bit with that. And then we are gonna make this part of our Meet the Contestants for Miss Harlem Shake 2024. So we can support that journey of hers. She’s trying to raise $20,000. I think she’s so far raised $6,000. And I’m very excited to see if we can help. You know.

bring that up because her pictures and her stuff from Instagram showing you know her help in the maternity wards in like Togo or Ghana are so tremendous and I think what she’s doing is amazing. So normally my passions go to like moms, women, single moms mostly.

Anthony Codispoti (48:59.534)
We’ll be sure to share that GoFundMe link with us. We’ll put it in the show notes for everybody.

Jelena Pasic (49:04.054)
Yeah, that would be amazing.

Anthony Codispoti (49:06.398)
And I’d be curious to hear what words of encouragement, words of advice that you have for young struggling mother maybe who is in a similar situation as yours. Like, you know, I think we touched on this a little bit in the pre-interview. You know, I would suspect that, you know, people look at a successful business owner and they think, well, that person’s got it all put together. They have all the answers. They were just born this way. Everything comes easy to them. And they don’t they don’t understand.

you know, sort of the real person behind the scenes that, you know, everybody struggles, everybody goes through hard times. And being able to break through and overcome those things is what, you know, really helps to set us apart. What can you share from your story that might be helpful for others?

Jelena Pasic (49:52.342)
This is a very difficult question because I think there are many things that you would want to share with a person like that. And it’s kind of hard to put them in order of importance, but I think it’s necessary. So first and foremost, I think the first and foremost is do not lose your faith and do not lose your self-love. Your past doesn’t define your future or your present.

There is no reason to dwell over your past, cry over it and feel shame over it. Let it, like reconcile with whatever holds you down and really put it on the shelf. But make sure you clean that, you know, clean that, clean that past and draw a clear line and make a true decision that you are going to improve yourself and everybody else around you in the process. I think that’s the fundamental, right? Because if you don’t have that straight, that kind of comes back to bite you in the, you know, in the back later.

And then on a business level, like I said, if you have a passion, try to really understand that working on your passion is not going to take one day and it’s not going to take one month and it’s really not going to take one year. It’s going to take maybe a lifetime or half a lifetime. Right? So, understanding that the results don’t come overnight is crucial because a lot of people have a passion, but then.

they kind of waver and they become impatient. Like working on a journey of a trajectory of life takes a lifetime. So working toward, you know, your dream come true is a sort of a very long journey. I would compare it to a climbing on a like really high mountain, right? You can’t climb on a really high mountain in one day. You have to have some pit stops. You have to have some base camps.

Try to understand and map out your way. Have a vision board, which sounds cliche again, but what is a vision board? It’s where you want to be really in 20 years. It’s very necessary to go back to the vision board when you come back from a 12 hour shift and your kid is crying. Otherwise you forget your vision. So that’s second thing that I would say. And then map out your journey, map out that climb to the mountain, map where your base camps are. What are the things that you’re weak on?

Jelena Pasic (52:11.574)
Be honest with yourself about your weaknesses, journal them, write them out, and make a reasonable way how you can work on them so you can turn them into at least neutral or your strengths. Because no one is perfect, everyone has weaknesses, right? So we all need to learn something and that doesn’t take a day. Yeah, those would be the beginning steps, right? Surround yourselves with people who speak life into you, not with people who take life from you.

surround yourself with people who are supportive and balanced. Because if you’re in an imbalanced surrounding, you will be in balance yourself. And it’s very, it’s hard enough to make things happen in a neutral surrounding. If you’re in a surrounding that is detrimental to your, you know, health or your mental health or your emotional health, that’s just making things harder. It’s a ball around your foot. So don’t stay in those relationships, no matter how hard it is to cut out of them. It is hard.

but in the end of the day, it’s very valuable.

Anthony Codispoti (53:15.166)
Yeah, when I get rid of the toxic energy and just keep the good energy around you. And the other thing you said that I really liked, which sort of, I think you called them base camps, pit stops, sort of set like some waypoints for yourself along the way. You’re here now, you want to be at the top of the mountain, but you don’t just, you don’t climb a mountain in a straight line. It’s, you know, you kind of have to follow a certain path. And if you’ve got points along the way where you’re like, okay, I’ve hit a milestone now, I feel good about that. What’s the next one? What’s the next.

Jelena Pasic (53:19.028)
Absolutely.

Anthony Codispoti (53:43.906)
You kind of give yourself some regular check-in points to say, hey, I’m making progress towards this. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m putting one foot in front of the other and I’m slowly getting.

Jelena Pasic (53:54.538)
Another thing that I think is super important to tell, especially 20, 30 year olds that grew up in iPhone era, I’ve read a great book recently, because I’m a parent of a 22 year old, 20 year old and a six year old. So it’s like, they ran the gamut. So I’ve read this book that I recommend wholeheartedly to all parents, it’s called The Anxious Generation. And it speaks about what

impact, you know, your wasteful scrolling on Instagram has on the mental health. First off, I say not to, not to rant about that, but just to say, if you want to have a business plan come true, you ain’t got no time to be on that Instagram, comparing yourself to other people. You just don’t have it. There is only 24 hours in a day. You have children and you have a job and you’re working on your project. You don’t have time to scroll.

And all that you’re going to gain by scrolling is feeling miserable because you’re comparing yourself to some fake realities that are not even real. And your attention span will drop because you will become hypnotized by the algorithm. And that’s why I think a lot of people, I want to go back to the pit stops that I started saying this, because a lot of people these days are impatient. They don’t see the journey with, you know, stops because they’re used to this.

Jelena Pasic (55:24.003)
very quick attention. I try to stay away with it as much as I can. While it can be very entertaining and it’s all good, I just think it’s really kind of useless. It could be great to see an idea or to see something visually appealing, yes, but to spend on it more than 10 minutes in a day is to me a huge waste of human potential.

Anthony Codispoti (55:47.978)
You said, you don’t have time to scroll. I think that would be great on a t-shirt. It just, it sums it up. Like that’s a great message, right? You’ve got other things to do. This isn’t going to serve you very well. Yeah, it’s okay. It’s like an occasional, like I wanna check in to see, I wanna get inspiration for something or I wanna see what, you know, my brother posted. But yeah, if that’s a regular routine, a regular habit, a regular source of distraction for you.

Jelena Pasic (55:54.998)
Sorry. Yeah.

Anthony Codispoti (56:14.626)
You’re not doing yourself any favors. You don’t have time to scroll.

Jelena Pasic (56:18.742)
Yeah. Also clean what comes into your feed, you know? You’re not only what you eat, you’re also what you see and what you are exposed to. So who’s like knocking on that back door of your iPhone? Who’s coming in? Who are you letting in? Because everything you let in unconsciously really shapes who you become after a while. It’s like letting a drip of water like dripping on the stone, you know, creating a hole after a while. So a lot of people don’t like think about it. I believe…

Anthony Codispoti (56:46.33)
slow burn.

Jelena Pasic (56:47.414)
now the conscientious is like growing better lately so that makes me that makes me hopeful

Anthony Codispoti (56:54.082)
Yelena, what’s something fun or interesting that most people don’t know about you?

Jelena Pasic (56:59.55)
I speak fluent Spanish. Is that fine? Yeah. Oh, that’s, what else? I skipped second grade in school.

Um, I was Miss Alperadria in 2000. I don’t even remember what year. I don’t want to say it.

Anthony Codispoti (57:17.938)
Hahaha!

Jelena Pasic (57:21.459)
Yeah.

Anthony Codispoti (57:22.143)
And how does one earn that honor?

Jelena Pasic (57:26.286)
I think I applied in high school because a friend recommended me and it was just a local, regional pageant, so it was nothing important. But you said you want something fun and that don’t fit in there, you don’t know what.

Anthony Codispoti (57:38.746)
That is fun. So is skipping second grade, and how did you become fluent in Spanish? Were you traveling a lot?

Jelena Pasic (57:47.695)
I think in the restaurant kitchens I first learned those basics. I mean it helps also I’m a one quarter Italian because my grandma was Italian so I spoke Italian when I was little. But then Spanish is so similar right and then when I married my husband who is Mexican obviously we you know he listens and speaks a lot of Spanish at home so I kind of built on that further.

Anthony Codispoti (58:13.731)
That makes sense.

Jelena Pasic (58:14.73)
Yeah, I also am a cave diver. That’s what I love as well.

Anthony Codispoti (58:19.658)
a cave diver. So is that like free diving, like no assisted breathing or?

Jelena Pasic (58:24.697)
I don’t know. It’s with bottles. But it’s in caves, so it’s a little more dangerous, because there is really no way to get out if you don’t know your stuff.

Anthony Codispoti (58:32.046)
You say it’s with what? It’s with bottles?

Jelena Pasic (58:34.89)
I mean, it’s a real scuba diving. It’s a scuba, scuba dive. It’s not breath diving. Yeah. So I…

Anthony Codispoti (58:36.875)
Okay, got it.

Anthony Codispoti (58:41.258)
And what’s the attraction to cave diving? What do you find in there? Just like coral? Is there different kinds of fish that you?

Jelena Pasic (58:48.986)
It’s really the play of light and like if you dive in Cenotes or there is a really nice sinkhole in Bahamas, it’s the most outlandish and most gorgeous place I’ve ever seen of all places. It just looks like you’re in a different universe completely. It’s like a lot of play of light and different plants that you see and it’s very surreal.

Anthony Codispoti (59:14.602)
That’s neat. Yelena, I just have one more question for you. But before I ask it, I want to point people to the best way to get in touch with you. They’re inspired by your story. Maybe they’re interested in a franchise. What’s the best way for people to connect with you?

Jelena Pasic (59:30.427)
LinkedIn is fine. Also, they can always reach me through my email jpasic at Harlem Shake.com

Anthony Codispoti (59:38.102)
And we’ll include those resources in the show notes for everybody. Okay. Last question. Where do you see your business evolving in the next five years? What would you like to see happen?

Jelena Pasic (59:49.056)
I’d like to sell a lot of franchises and grow on a national level and grow internationally possibly because we do have a lot of tourists that are always very excited about Harlem Shake so I see us you know maybe in Europe or Dubai or places like that.

Anthony Codispoti (01:00:04.418)
Oh, you see exporting this concept overseas as well.

Jelena Pasic (01:00:07.662)
on a limited level, not necessarily blanketing the Earth, that’s not the ambition. But I think certain places where they have that recognition of Harlem Brand, that would be a great addition.

Anthony Codispoti (01:00:22.489)
Yelena, thank you so much for sharing your story with us today. I really appreciate it.

Jelena Pasic (01:00:27.462)
Antoni, thank you so much for having me. I hope you enjoyed our conversation.

Anthony Codispoti (01:00:33.282)
Very much so. Folks, that’s a wrap on another episode of the Inspired Stories podcast. Thanks for learning with us today.