BLACK HISTORY MONTH
From Slavery to Success: 3 Generations Operate Sylvia’s Restaurant
Sylvia’s is so well known that “restaurant” or “soul food” need not be added to the name. It’s an Institution and one that next year will be able to boast a half-century presence in Harlem. It may attract the likes of Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Caroline Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Magic Johnson, and many others, but Education Update can verify that everything that’s been said about the cuisine and courtesy at this iconic uptown Southern-food dining spot at 328 Lenox Ave. (originally at 127th St.), including its legendary 85-year-old proprietress, is true. There she was, a few months ago, in the larger dining room. The restaurant had just opened for lunch, and frail that she was, 85-year-old Sylvia Woods was sitting quietly, a granddaughter at her side, nodding, smiling to those who stopped by to say hello. How many other well-established restaurants could claim to have their founder still on the premises, holding court? To Sylvia, the Queen of Soul Food, however, being there, as her son Van Woods remarks, was natural, inevitable, a part of her work ethic and cultural heritage. She was, she is, “unique.”
Many restaurants might claim to have good soul food, but what really sets Sylvia’s apart, says Woods, echoing his wife’s enthusiastic comments, is a projected “sense of family.” Dining guests are treated as though they were kin. Until recently, when she was stronger, she would take time to greet folks as they came in. Then she would walk around, inquiring if they were enjoying themselves. There was nothing rehearsed about it. Sylvia was the real deal. That same strong belief in family values — and her wider sense of what family can mean as community — prompted the creation a few years ago of The Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Endowment Foundation (named in part for her childhood sweetheart and beloved husband), which “disburses four-year partial [college] scholarships to children of and around the Harlem community.”
The growth of Sylvia’s — which includes a catering service, real estate and a product line, is a remarkable tale of dedication and focus on the part of a young girl from rural South Carolina. Borrowing money from her mother who mortgaged her Hemingway, S.C., farm, Sylvia has been quoted as saying: “I knew I had to make it or else my mama was gonna lose her farm. So I gave it all that I had to give.” Did she ever! “She did the grunt work,” says her son, and she truly “loves” people, and “not in a “mushy, mushy” way. Her love is as much rock determination as compassion. And smarts: she would offer home-style Southern food that would appeal not just to blacks but to whites as well, making each think of another time, enshrining different memories up North. Van Woods chuckles: who would think that the food would also become attractive to Asians?
Woods is continuing in his mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps. He was the odd one out among his siblings who all got involved directly in the restaurant. He went off to college and majored in political science and sociology (“it was the sixties”), but family and business opportunities beckoned in the 1980s. He refers to himself, humorously, as the “expansionist” in the family. Some years ago, after the restaurant moved to its present and larger location, and at the suggestion of a consultant friend, he began to consider a product line. He recalls saying one day, “Mom, I’m going to take a picture of your pretty face and put it on a jar for barbecue sauce.” And so he did, a move “borne out of love.” He then began to study product development and food production and display and began to burnish his reputation as the expansionist. Sylvia’s products now include mixes, canned foods, sauces of all kinds, sausages, soups, spices, beauty and skin care items and two cookbooks.
Although plans are under way for a full-size restaurant in Washington, D.C., a main innovation, says Woods, will be Sylvia Express, starting in the D.C. and Maryland areas, smaller editions of Sylvia’s that will feature take-out and key-item purchases. For further information check out www.sylviasrestaurant.com.