Sylvia Woods


by Robin D. Stone, July 01, 2013

Sylvia Woods

It’s a typical Tuesday morning at Sylvia’s, the beloved soul food emporium in the heart of Harlem. Regulars line  I the ancient pale green Formica counter. The aroma envelops and warms: long-simmering greens; fried chicken; whiting; livers and onions; smothered chops; mac and cheese; yams; biscuits; and bacon. The scent is reminiscent of Big Mama’s house or any place where something is always on the stove, and the scent lingers long after the last plate is cleared.

An older brother claims the first chair at the counter. He’s a bit disheveled but clean and engaged in an animated and loud conversation with himself. “OK, now I’ve got some bread for you, and that’s about it,” the waitress tells him in a voice that says she won’t take no mess. She sets a plate of cornbread and a glass of water before him.

The man, who goes by “Mr. Henry,” quiets and eats, then he slides a few coins her way and leaves.Taking care of Mr. Henry is as important as taking care of a never-ending stream of tourists, New Yorkers, civic leaders and boldface names who appear in pictures lining the eatery’s homey walls. It is that compassion cultivated by Sylvia Woods, matriarch of a sprawling empire, who died in July 2012 at the age of 86, that has kept Sylvia’s thriving through Harlem’s ups and downs for 51 years. It is that compassion that packs the 450-seat space, even as a boom of new Harlem restaurants vies for diners’ appetites and dollars.

Sylvia’s longevity is no easy feat: New Yorkers are fickle about their food. Step into a new joint where the vibe is off or the prices are ridiculous, and you know the restaurant won’t be in business for long. Plus, times and tastes are changing in the city. In recent years, rising downtown prices have sent homebuyers of all stripes uptown in search of “bargains.” Now, for the first time since the 1940s, Blacks make up less than 50 percent of the Harlem community.  As Harlem diversified and French and Latin nouveau soul places opened, some of its famous spots closed: Wilson’s. Well’s Supper Club. Lenox Lounge. And despite its notoriety, not everybody is a fan of Sylvia’s.

Some say the restaurant, which caters to busloads of tourists, especially for the Gospel Sunday brunch, is too pricey, too heavy, too salty, too sweet and too far removed from authentic Southern tastes. But still, it resonates. Harlem is the third-leading international tourist destination in New York City, behind downtown and midtown Manhattan, says Curtis Archer, president of the Harlem Community Development Corporation. And when folks come to Harlem, first and second on many must-see and must-do lists are the famed Apollo Theater and Sylvia’s.

When New Yorkers memorialized Woods last year—her husband and childhood sweetheart, Herbert, predeceased her in 2001—they celebrated the business mind and tenacity that fueled her rise and transformation from small-town Hemingway, S.C., beautician to American success story and Harlem treasure. Mostly, they celebrated her grace. She had passed the torch to her children several years before her death, but that grace still influences the business, which now includes catering, cookbooks, bottled sauces and canned goods on grocery shelves and grosses upwards of $8 million annually.

How Sylvia’s remains a common ground for neighbors and a mecca for visitors venturing uptown in search of a taste of Americana is a study for business schools. But it’s also a tale of ingenuity, perseverance, family, faith and, as Sylvia might say, home training. Here’s why Sylvia’s will most likely remain the Queen of Soul Food, even when the queen is long gone.

Everybody’s Special
One Sunday, the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson stop by and are seated amid the crowd. There is no VIP section. They eat in peace and then pose for pictures on their way out. Alexander Smalls, executive chef of the soon-to-reopen jazz spot Minton’s Playhouse and sister restaurant, Cecil’s, recounts a most memorable Sylvia’s experience that followed the funeral for Reginald Lewis of TLC Beatrice International in 1993. Smalls went to the restaurant with his friend Kathleen Battle, the opera soprano, who had sung at the service. “Kathleen and I arrived to find at our table an assorted buffet of some of the most important African-American leaders and icons of our time,” says Smalls, who is developing the new Harlem ventures with former Citigroup and Time Warner chairman Richard Parsons. “Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Cicely Tyson, Percy Sutton, David Dinkins … Sylvia’s was the kind of place where you could have a deliveryman at the table to your right and a famous actress in front of you or the mayor seated to your left. No matter your title or the price of your suit,

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