August 1998

Sylvia Woods

Entrepreneur

Sylvia Woods

The world changed for Sylvia Woods the day that Gael Greene, a famous food critic, walked into her tiny restaurant in Harlem, New York, in 1979. Greene’s glowing review in New York magazine led to a flood of new customers, not just from the city itself but from all parts of the United States. The restaurant, Sylvia’s, has since become known world-wide and its owner, South Carolinian Sylvia Woods, has been described by the New York Times as “the Queen of Soul Food.” For those who visit New York and who love the unique tradition of southern cooking, a meal at Sylvia’s is a must. Born in 1926 in Hemingway, South Carolina, Woods worked long hours in the heat of the bean fields of her hometown. She has fond memories of returning home and eating her mother’s delicious meals. The importance of preparing and offering savory meals was instilled in her from childhood. Woods married in 1944 and, two years later, the Woods family moved to New York City, where she worked as a waitress at a cafe known as Johnson’s Lunch. After the owner relocated, she operated the cafe herself. In 1962, she borrowed money from her mother and purchased the cafe, which consisted of six stools and four booths. In 1963, she renamed the cafe Sylvia’s. In 1968, she moved the establishment two doors down to its present location at 328 Lenox Avenue. It remained very small but, after the rave reviews of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the expansion of the business continued until the entire city block was purchased. The restaurant now has a seating capacity of over 300 and a banquet hall and a jazz and blues club have also been added. Sylvia’s is truly a family enterprise. Woods, her husband, Herbert, and their four children are all instrumental in cultivating the growth of the business. Van Woods, their eldest son and president of Sylvia Woods Enterprises, is responsible for packaging and marketing some of the sauces, dressings, seasonings and specially prepared vegetables that are the hallmark of Sylvia’s. “We found that many people wanted to take home the great taste of Sylvia’s,” he explained. In 1992, Sylvia’s soul food items began to be sold in major supermarket chains and gourmet food shops throughout the nation. The company’s success shows no sign of slowing down. As part of its global strategy, Sylvia Woods Enterprises has its own website on the Internet. For more than thirty years, Sylvia’s has offered the finest southern delicacies to international tourists, politicians, celebrities and others who keep returning for more. Sylvia’s has been continually highlighted by national, state and local newspapers, magazines and television programs as a superb dining spot. The restaurant has received numerous awards and honors from community organizations and businesses for helping to improve the quality of life for Harlem residents by creating more than 75 jobs. In 1997, a second Sylvia’s opened in Atlanta, Georgia. Sylvia Woods’ dream of being successful has taken her from the bean fields to the Internet. Her efforts have been influential in giving visibility to and international respect for the art of southern cuisine.