she treated everybody like family.”
They’ve Got a Great Back Story
In the 1950s, Sylvia Pressley Woods, having moved to New York City from Hemingway to join her mother, found work as a waitress at a restaurant owned by a Black World War II veteran and his White wife. Sylvia didn’t know a thing about the business, but she was a quick study with an entrepreneurial spirit. When the owners sought to pursue other ventures, they offered to sell the business to Sylvia for $20,000. Although she was a waitress, she had a manager’s mindset. “She could squeeze a dollar till the eagle bled,” Herbert once told a family friend. She was already sitting on $2,000 in savings and called on her mother, now back in Hemingway, to help with the rest. Mother Julia, who like her mother, was a landowner and midwife to many of the town’s Black and White babies, mortgaged the farm to a sympathetic wealthy White family, says Van Woods, 68, the eldest of the Woods siblings who produces and promotes Sylvia’s food products. Sylvia purchased the tiny space—it held 15 stools and six booths—on Aug. 1, 1962 and hung her shingle. Then, she set out to repay her mother.
They’ve Cultivated Mad Respect
“They are known for being community-oriented,” says Flores Forbes, who coordinates economic development opportunities through the Harlem-based Columbia University’s Office of Government and Community Affairs. “They hired formerly incarcerated people; people who probably wouldn’t have an opportunity to work elsewhere.” With a staff of more than 80, Sylvia’s is one of Harlem’s larger employers. In April 1968, when word of Dr. Martin Luther King’s death propelled furious, heartbroken crowds into the streets, whole blocks in Harlem were devastated. But not Sylvia’s. “All of Lenox Avenue was tore up,” says Kenneth Woods, 59, CEO of Sylvia Woods Enterprises, the second-youngest Woods sibling. “But the restaurant was untouched. Not a bottle. Nothing. It was like, ‘Don’t touch Ms. Sylvia’s place.’”
They Don’t Rent—They Own
“They have probably one of the most unique business models in Harlem and the inner city—Black or White—that is guaranteed to be sustained because they own their own land,” Forbes says. “The highest fixed cost of most restaurants is rent. It’s remarkable that they had the foresight to buy their property.” After the riots and amid Harlem’s decline, White business owners followed an exodus of White and Black homeowners out of Harlem. Owners offered their spaces to the Woodses, and in a succession of moves over the next decades, the restaurant annexed space by breaking through the walls into neighboring buildings. Today, on a block that once included a hardware store, a bar and a Chinese joint, Sylvia’s footprint now covers almost all of Lenox Avenue between 126th and 127th Streets.
Everybody’s Welcome—Just Act Right
Sylvia’s has long had a reputation for serving folks down on their luck. In the ’70s and ’80s, when Harlem was in the grips of heroin and crack epidemics, “Mother would serve drug addicts and winos just the same as blue-collar and white-collar,” says daughter Bedelia Woods, 65, vice president of operations. She runs the catering arm, which represents 25 percent of the restaurant’s revenue. At the same time, Sylvia could be tough: “One time, this guy came in drunk or high,” Bedelia recalls. “He fell across a table where three teachers were having lunch. Mom used to keep a baseball bat behind the counter. She grabbed that bat and whipped him across the street. I’m watching her thinking, ‘Mommy’s gonna kill that man!’”
They’ve Got Longtime Fans
The lore is that restaurant critic Gael Greene put Sylvia’s on the map with her New York magazine review. But many will tell you that Sylvia’s already had a following. Sharpton recalls when James Brown introduced him to the restaurant: “The first time I went, it was in the ’70s— it was still just a counter. James Brown was performing at the Apollo. He’d say, ‘Meet me at Sylvia’s.’” Sharpton, in turn, introduced Sylvia’s to many, including, in 2008, an Illinois senator campaigning for president. A photo of Sharpton and Barack Obama flanks a table near the entrance.
They Have Symbolic Value
When Obama was first elected, Archer recalls, many gravitated to Sylvia’s for a watch party. “It was amazing to see the first African-American president of the U.S. elected from there, he said, ticking off the many Harlem icons who came through that night—from U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel, to former Gov. David Patterson to former state Sen.H. Carl McCall. “The house was packed and the air was kind of electric. It was comforting to know then and there that America had made the right choice.”
Over the years, Sylvia’s menu and some ingredients changed with the times.
SYLVIA WOODS LEFT BEHIND A LEGACY OF LOVE IN HARLEM—AND BEYOND
she treated everybody like family.”