Sylvia’s, a famed Harlem mainstay, has celebrated 50 years of serving up soul food.
Founded in 1962 by the late Sylvia Woods, the restaurant was known for offering staples such as fried chicken, ribs, corn bread and candied yams that earned Woods the nickname “Queen of Soul Food.”
What was once a small luncheonette at 328 Lenox Avenue in New York flourished into a popular eatery that drew noted politicians, tourists, celebrities and local residents.
Woods died July 19 at the age of 86, just before she was to receive an award from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg commemorating the restaurant’s 50th anniversary. She had been suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Her family is striving to keep her legacy alive.
Woods’ granddaughter, Tren’ness Woods-Black says planning to mark the restaurant’s anniversary was a bittersweet moment for the family.
“It was really important to her for the anniversary to be marked in a way that the legacy that was being built just showed,” says Woods-Black.
She says there is a great sense of pride in the strides made by her grandmother and family.
“It’s not just something for us. I think for Harlem at large, for the African-American culture, for the American culinary scene — a restaurant marking 50 years is no small feat,” Woods-Black says of the restaurant’s milestone.
“I think that the restaurant making 50 years is just a testament to staying true to the foundation and the goals that the restaurant was built upon — and that was family and community first — and staying true to bringing the very best soul food that we have to offer.”
Woods-Black says that the restaurant’s ability to keep its core ingredients, yet adapt its menu with changing times by offering healthier alternatives and offering a welcoming atmosphere have been key aspects of its success.
“There’s three generations in the business and everyone is very much hands on. We talk to our customers. We know them by name. We spend a lot of time in the restaurant, and so you have to make it a home away from home,” says Woods-Black, who went from busing tables at Sylvia’s as a teenager to vice president of communications.
Woods-Black says many of Sylvia’s customers hail from Philadelphia, as many bus tours from schools, churches and organizations frequent the Harlem eatery.
Sylvia’s marked 50 years in business by hosting a Golden Jubilee celebration sponsored by Target on August 1. The community breakfast event drew more than 300 Harlem residents, celebrities and dignitaries.
“They’ve really helped us to make this 50th anniversary extra special,” Woods-Black says of the retailer.
“As a family business, we’re always conscious of who we partner with and Target was so perfect because we share the same values. We’re all about the community and giving back through education.”
When Target opened its first Harlem store in 2010, it stocked store shelves with products from Sylvia’s food line of canned vegetables, sauces, spices and mixes. Now, select Target stores nationwide carry Sylvia’s products.
“Target is a retailer that shares Sylvia’s same passion for the Harlem community. Target intentionally chose Harlem as its first Manhattan store because the community embodies the retailer’s values of community, diversity and being a good neighbor,” Target officials said in a statement.
Woods, who hailed from South Carolina, opened Sylvia’s in 1962. It was once a 35-seat luncheonette where she once worked as a waitress. She and her husband Herbert borrowed money from her mother, who mortgaged her farm in South Carolina to purchase the restaurant. Since then it has grown into a famed entity that includes the restaurant, a catering company and a nationwide line of Sylvia’s food products. She also penned “Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook: From Hemingway, South Carolina, To Harlem” and “Sylvia’s Soul Food.”
Woods maintained Sylvia’s until her 80th birthday, when she passed the torch to her children and grandchildren.
In 2001, the family launched the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Fund that benefits students from Harlem. Since its inception, the fund has awarded scholarships to 76 students. A second anniversary dinner will be held October 26 at Sylvia’s to benefit the scholarship fund.
The Woods family has set ambitious goals for the future, which include developing real estate along Lenox Avenue.
“We’re looking to build a new facility — something that will harness the charm that maintains that 1962 feel, but also have a modern, Southern soul food ambiance as well,” says Woods-Black.
Plans are also in the works to launch a new cookbook, open new locations in Maryland and Florida, and bring a new lifestyle cooking show to television.
“Soul food is a very important cultural identity marker for African Americans, and we consider ourselves to be ambassadors for that,” added Woods-Black.