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Last summer, Harlem residents were surprised to find the unlit storefront of Lee Lee’s Baked Goods shuttered closed. After inquiring phone calls, they discovered that Alvin Lee Smalls, Harlem’s undisputed king of rugelach, went out of business. But within two weeks of closing, this self-taught baker from South Carolina was back at his bakery, doling out fresh batches of golden, buttery pastries to his eager customers.
“When I first saw him I thought, ‘He’s an old black man, what’s he doing with rugelach?’” said Lynn Lieberman, an artist living in West Harlem. “My husband is Jewish, and I have a lot to compare [his rugelach] with. Let me tell you something: Lee Lee’s is the best.”
The quaint paisley wallpapered bakery on West 118th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard is unlike other Harlem small businesses, in that it withstood the storm of the economic recession with the help of loyal customers, Harlem residents, and the power of social media.
Lee Lee’s Baked Goods was doing brisk business since Smalls opened his bakery the day after 9/11, averaging more than $700 in sales during the weekend. But then the recession hit, and in March 2009 the methadone clinic across the street – Smalls’ main source of business – shut down.
Despite his following of loyal customers, sales alone couldn’t bring Smalls’ business out of the red, and he began using his savings to stay afloat. On May 31, 2010, after 9 years of providing Harlem residents and rugelach fans with their daily dose of sweet treats, Lee Lee’s Baked Goods closed its doors.
“[The clients and staff] at the drug center would come in every mornin’ and buy all my Danish and coffee,” said Smalls. “They put in big orders, but after [they closed], there was nothin’.”
Distraught Harlem residents, however, wouldn’t hear of it and they responded the only way they could: through social media.
“He is the real deal, we don’t have bakers like him anymore,” said Lynn Lieberman, an artist living in West Harlem. “We didn’t want to see him go.”
Tal Klausner, one of Smalls’ regular customers, sent emails to community groups encouraging members to patronize Smalls’ bakery. Harlem residents like Lieberman wrote posts on blogs such as Harlem Condo Life, Harlem Bespoke and Mount Morris Monitor, pleading readers to revive Lee Lee’s Baked Goods through placing large orders or helping Smalls with business management.
“There was something about me on the computer… business was crazy after that,” said Smalls.
Customers, both new and old, were swamping the bakery with orders and a new business partner jumped on board to help Smalls catch up financially.
Since the bakery’s re-opening on June 19, 2010, Smalls has introduced new additions to the bakery, including a mail-order service, a new website and a hot breakfast menu available on the weekends. Smalls is also in the midst of developing a sugar-free menu.
Business has picked up, and Smalls is optimistic about the future.
“I want to open a shop downtown, maybe in the next few years,” said Smalls. “Bakeries there have rugelach, but, you know, they don’t have good rugelach!”