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.
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, 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. Pork was removed from the collard greens and turkey stock replaced pork stock. The restaurant also offers a vegetarian version of the dish. Grilled foods and green salads have been added to the menu. And along with other New York City restaurants, Sylvia’s has eliminated trans fats from its food preparation. “It was a challenge,” says Crizette Woods, the youngest Woods sibling, 47, who serves as comptroller. “Mommy said, ‘Nobody’s coming here for a salad.’ But we knew some customers couldn’t come anymore because they were on strict diets. We changed the way we cooked. Less sodium, greens without ham hocks. We made it taste just as good but healthier.” As the restaurant approaches its 51st anniversary in August, the Woods siblings are looking toward the future. Van, who is known as the visionary, considers possibilities for their prime real estate: “Commercial space … condos, maybe even a hotel. But first and foremost, it will be a restaurant.”
They Give Back
The restaurant recently hosted Joy Degruy, Ph.D., author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, for a provocative lecture on race and culture. About 50 people turned out at Sylvia’s Also Lounge, the affiliated lounge on the corner, to hear the Portland State University professor and support her book. The family also continues its tradition of providing educational scholarships in honor of patriarch Herbert Woods. And every August, they host a celebration featuring a free breakfast buffet.
They’re All About Family
It’s a Sunday at Sylvia’s. A gospel singer works the room, and the place fills quickly. Manager Kendra Woods, one of Kenneth’s daughters, is in charge today. The legacy continues: Seven of the 18 Woods grandchildren are in the business. A Japanese tourist dining solo, translation book in hand, struggles to navigate the menu. He points to pictures, smiles and nods. The waitress, a law student catching shifts as she awaits her bar exam results, nods back and jots down his order. When his fried chicken and waffles arrives, he smiles and digs in. Just like Mr. Henry, he feels welcome here, too.