The Union sponsors BLVD Bistro Cafeteria Takeover


Audrey Carbonell

The cafeteria featured soul food from Harlem’s BLVD Bistro in celebration of Black History Month last Friday. Union Presidents Ajani Green-Watson (12) and Rachel Fearon (12) planned this event. Items on the menu included fried chicken, collard greens, biscuits, tofu, and lemon pound cake.

The Union, the school’s social justice club, worked with Senior Director of Dining Service Brenda Cohn to plan the event, Cohn said. “When Rachel Fearon and Ajani Green-Watson came to me with their idea to have a local black owned restaurant come to HM in honor of Black History Month, I was super excited,” she said.

“We thought it would be a good collaboration for Black History Month to support a Black owned business and bring the culture to Horace Mann, which is something we don’t really do a lot,” Green-Watson said. “The other effect is to really introduce [the community] to soul foods in our neighborhood,” she said.

The Union wanted a unique way to bring a part of African American culture to the school, Green-Watson said. Instead of a workshop, where attendance would be limited, they wanted to reach a broader scope of the community, she said. “The cafeteria is a place that everybody goes to, and it’s not even just high schoolers, it’s also the middle school.”

The student body tried a variety of different foods. Isabella Ciriello (10) had the tofu and the biscuit, she said. “Everything was really good — I usually am not a person that likes tofu, but I thought it had a lot of flavor and the texture was good.”

To further introduce African American culture to the community, the Union set up an informational table and put together a playlist of Black artists’ music. “We chose the menu, decided we would decorate a table and have music, [in order to] really have a time of community for everyone,” Fearon said.

Cassandra Ortiz (9) visited the information table, where she learned about the importance of soul food in the African American community, she said. “It [was] really informative,” she said. When walking by the table, Ortiz witnessed many of her classmates and peers asking questions to the Union presidents about African American culture, she said. 

During the event, Ortiz felt that she was able to engage with African American culture, she said. “I really like food, so trying [these dishes] that were really good and seeing the culture aspect of it was really important for everyone in the community,” she said. “Food is an important aspect of many cultures, as it tells stories passed on from generation to generation.”

On the other hand, Peter Yu (11) enjoyed the chicken but thought it was overcooked, he said. Yu was not aware of how fried chicken connected to Black History Month and was more focused on the flavor aspect of the dish, he said.

Daniella Herman (9) also had the chicken and biscuits, she said. Although she had tried these foods before, she found that BLVD Bistro prepared the dishes well, she said.

Planning for the event began in January, Fearon said. “We first talked to Dr. Kelly and the original plan was to have a food truck,” she said. 

However, Kelly did not know if a food truck would be feasible since the prominent soul food trucks in Harlem were unable to spend an entire day at the school, Green-Watson said. Instead, he gave the Union the idea for a cafeteria takeover, she said. 

The Union started with a list of four potential restaurants for the event, Green-Watson said. “We emailed them and we weren’t sure what their COVID protocols were so we tried to keep our options open,” she said. BLVD Bistro, which was one of Kelly’s initial suggestions, was the first restaurant to respond to the Union, she said. 

Cohn also reached out to the owner of BLVD Bistro, Markisha Swepson, to review food allergen ingredients, delivery logistics, packaging, and service, she said. Additionally, Cohn estimated the quantity of items to order based off of the school’s production records, she said. “We were spot on.”

They did not encounter difficulties when planning the event, Cohn said. “It was absolutely seamless — the owner of the BLVD Bistro was such a pleasure to work with.” 

When deciding the menu, the Union wanted the most effective way to introduce soul food to the community, Fearon said. “We wanted to make sure that we were including staples of African American culture, but also we made sure that we included the HM community and considered what our peers actually eat,” she said. So, Fearon picked meal options that she thought other students would enjoy, she said. 

BLVD Bistro’s main establishment prepared the food, Cohn said. Once they arrived at the school, FLIK chefs reheated the dishes and transferred them to serving dishes, she said.

The Union hoped to have a positive impact on the community, Fearon said. “We hope that this [event], in addition to our newsletter, is a way for them to see into African American culture and engage with it in a respective and appropriate way without limitations,” she said. “We also hope that in the future, our other board members who are juniors and sophomores will use this as inspiration to continue having opportunities like this for the student body.”