Sylvia’s Restaurant of Harlem Sets the Standard for a Thriving Family Business
Sylvia Woods, founder of internationally renowned Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, rightfully earned her culinary reputation as Queen of Soul Food. The Hemingway, S.C., native who moved north to find better opportunity left an indelible mark on the Harlem community and everyone who was fortunate enough to be graced with her presence, including this writer. On July 19, Woods took her final breath, just a couple weeks before her world famous restaurant would celebrate a milestone.
“Aug. 1 is the day my grandmother turned the key to her luncheonette named Sylvia’s back in 1962. Fifty years later … what a blessing,” Sylvia’s granddaughter, Tren’ness Woods-Black, proudly shares.
“Our first move was three doors down because the original restaurant had a fire a few years after it opened. In 1967, we opened another location on the same side of the street, a few doors down. It also seated 35 and was a small luncheonette. Today, we have the entire block with the exception of the church on the corner and we can accommodate about 450 people.”
The soul food restaurant is a staple as popular as its neighbor, the Apollo Theater. It’s frequented by celebrities, foodies, domestic and international tourists – including busloads of Japan natives – and politicians like former President Bill Clinton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Quincy Jones and Diana Ross.
Here, Woods-Black, a graduate of the College of New Rochelle, who serves as the family spokesperson and marketing, communications and brand development consultant, shares how her grandmother instilled a strong work ethic, taught them the value of saving money and left a multigenerational legacy, including a catering business, banquet hall, a nationally distributed line of food in select Target stores nationwide and the business acument to open new, state-of-the-art restaurants in Harlem and culturally centered communities worldwide. –yvette caslin
What is your first memory contributing to the family business and working in the restaurant?
I was about 13, a teenager. I was really excited because I was going to be a bus girl, wearing my sneakers and matching uniform – black slacks, a white Sylvia’s branded t-shirt and an apron. I cleared the table after the guests finished their meal. I graduated to a server but I didn’t serve very long. My grandmother was like “Baby, you talk to the customers way too much. They never leave and the tables never turn. There’s a line outside the door.” A week later I was moved to the front door where I worked as a hostess. That’s when I learned the art of communication.
What do you mean when you say you “learned the art of communication?”
I made conversations with the guests so they didn’t feel they were waiting long. I learned how to write names phonetically before I realized that was what I was doing. I did it in this manner so I could repeat their names when their seats became available.
What was your grandmother’s leadership style?
My grandmother had a natural gift to identify the talent those around her possessed. She always found a way to place people in situations where those talents would flourish. My grandmother was very big on walking around to the guests while they were sitting down and to keep an eye on things: the dining room, read the customers body language to make sure they were enjoying themselves or to help if they needed something.
Who are the other family members that work or have worked at Sylvia’s?
My sisters, cousins, aunts and uncles … my dad, Kenneth Woods, is our CEO; he and his siblings run the business. Extended family and cousins from South Carolina come up at different periods in their lives to make money and go back home. I can remember many stories when relatives were headed off to college and my grandmother would say, “Girl, you better come here and make some extra money for tuition.” We never had to ask our parents for money because we would make our own money.
What did your grandmother teach you about saving and managing money?
She was an amazing mentor. She monitored how we spent our money. That’s how she based our pay. She taught us to save our large bills: denominations in 20s, 50s, and 100s. She wasn’t big on credit. If we didn’t have the money, then we didn’t need it. She didn’t believe in equipment like refrigeration. She liked to buy things outright. She didn’t get an American Express card until the late 80s and wasn’t happy about it. She taught us to admire the simple things in life.
How does Sylvia’s give back to the community?
We have a scholarship foundation that we started after my grandfather’s passing in 2001. It’s named the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Fund. Since its founding, we have awarded 76 scholarships to youth from Harlem and the surrounding community. This October, we will add an additional seven recipients. It’s one of my grandmother’s proudest achievements, making sure she was able to assist kids in need to go to college. This 50th Anniversary, we were able to help more people. Target came on as our title sponsor and the events that we are having will benefit the Fund. We do a kick-off community breakfast every year and we serve 1,500.
What values did your grandmother impart to you and your family?
1. Love each other.
2. Treat everyone the same.
3. Greet everyone with a smile.
4. Our main ingredient is love and you have to care about what you are doing.
5. Follow your dreams.
6. If you think you can do it, you can achieve it.
7. Ensuring that we remain proud of our culture. We have a great respect for Hemingway, S.C.
What is your fondest memory of your grandmother?
When she’d see me for the first time in a day, she’d look at me so endearingly and give me a big hug and tell me that she loves me. She was this way with all of the grandchildren.