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New York City

Sylvia Woods: The Queen of Soul Food
By Marylena Mantas

Growing up as an only child in Hemingway, South Carolina, Sylvia Woods, owner of the renowned Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem, would break candy into several pieces and give it to the neighborhood children in exchange for playing with her. Her childish actions indicate that from early days, Sylvia possessed those qualities that later helped her pave the way to success: determination, business orientation and adoration for good company.

“I enjoy people,” says Sylvia. “I try to get around to as many customers as I can…I love to say ‘meet, greet and let’s eat!’”

In August of 1962 Sylvia put her charismatic personality to the test and purchased the restaurant, which then was only a small luncheonette, from her own boss. Fifty years later, Sylvia’s has become the landmark of 126th St. and Lenox Avenue and the one place where everyone knows they can get a taste of authentic Southern Soul food. The restaurant also serves to remind the community’s residents that hard work, determination and love of family can lead to success.

“I want the world to know that I am grateful,” says the 79-year-old, who continues to play an active role in the restaurant, carefully over seeing every activity and greeting customers, often by their first names. “I would not change anything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. All of it was a part of my success.”

And, success was not easy to attain for this woman, who was raised by two widows, her mother and grandmother. “My mother never had an education, but she owned a farm and was a midwife...the men just weren’t there,” says Sylvia. Yet, the women of the family, whom she describes as “too strong” taught her perseverance, determination, but most of all the power of love.

“My mother said, ‘Freely give and freely you will receive, but never give all of yourself.’”

Sylvia gave as much as she could. The doors to her five room apartment on 131st St. in Harlem, where she and her husband Herbert, her childhood sweetheart, raised their four children after moving to New York from South Carolina, were always open to family members and friends who were new to the City.

“That apartment was the underground railroad for everyone that was coming up,” she said. “They all came to me.”

A few blocks away from the “underground railroad” Sylvia has now established a soul food empire, but in 1962, she could not even conceive of the success of her decision. In order to purchase the luncheonette, she had to ask her mother to mortgage her family farm.

Fearing that her business might fail, she asked with trepidation. Her mother agreed immediately and gave her $18,000 (in 1962). Sylvia became the owner of her own company, far from the cotton fields of South Carolina.

“The Havana Special [an express train] brought me [to New York], but the cotton field drove me out,” she said. “I hated picking cotton with a passion.”

She loves cooking, however, especially homemade food based on the recipes used by her mother and grandmother. Her food can now be purchased at most supermarkets, in containers and bottles packed in her plant in New Jersey. New customers can get a taste of her cuisine in her franchises in Kennedy Airport, New York and Atlanta.

“I look back and wonder how it happened. I am truly amazed at myself, my strength and my courage.”

Over the years, Sylvia enjoyed the support and help of family, especially that of her husband, who passed away recently. Today she is surrounded by her four children and 18 grandchildren, most of whom began working in the restaurant in their early teens. At a small corner in the restaurant, one will find a small round table where members of the Woods family, most of whom retain grandma’s sense of business, often gather. And, according to her granddaughter, TriennessWoods, that is where Sylvia sits and gives some of her pep talks.

“That’s where she educates us,” said Trienness. “Give time, time, time she often tells us.”

Yet, her grandchildren are not the only ones who benefit from this extraordinary woman’s wisdom. Students from local schools, who often dine at Sylvia’s, have the opportunity to meet Sylvia, who usually sits with them and advises: “You have to work hard, respect your parents, and give love. Be the best you can be, do well or don’t do it at all. If you don’t enjoy what you are doing you won’t do it well.”#


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