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New York's 'Queen of Soul Food' Still Reigns


Sylvia's Restaurant has been an institution in the black neighborhood of Harlem in New York City for 45 years this month. VOA's Carolyn Weaver recently visited the restaurant, and talked to the founder and other family members about the business of serving up the African-American cuisine known as soul food to locals and tourists alike.

Sylvia's Restaurant and associated businesses take up most of the block on an avenue in Harlem, the historically African-American neighborhood in New York. Founder Sylvia Woods and her late husband Herbert moved here from the U.S. south in the 1940s. They never intended to open a restaurant.

She recalls, "So, passing this little luncheonette going to work, I stopped in there and asked for a job as waitress. I got that job in '55."

She was able to buy the café in 1962. At 81, Woods has long been officially retired -- but she still spends most days at the restaurant, now operated by her children. "In the South, when you come to visit, when you're talking, somebody's in the kitchen, cooking. And that's the way it is with me. I enjoy cooking, I enjoy people eating and enjoying what we have to serve."

Her son, Kenneth, introduces himself. "My name is Kenneth Woods. I'm president and CEO of Sylvia Woods, Inc., and I am number three of the children. We basically started out a very small restaurant that had maybe 14 stools and a couple of booths. If we served 50 people a day, that was a great day, where now we can serve upward of a couple of thousand. Most of the recipes are Southern: fried chicken, smothered chicken, collard greens, candied yams -- the things that we raised, the things that we grew."

Today there are three dining rooms in addition to the original counter. Packed tables and walls lined with photographs of well-fed celebrities testify to the restaurant's success. And there are side businesses, led by eldest son Van Woods, including beauty products and packaged foods. "The food product is a multi-million dollar piece [of the business], and we're in supermarkets all around the country," he said.

Van Woods says minority-owned businesses, like his family's, should look for ways to grow and diversify. "I'm a true believer in that -- that we cannot be afraid to dream. But we can't just dream idly. You have to be pro-active while you're dreaming. Everyday you do something towards your dream. And you'd be surprised: you wake up one morning, and your dream has come true."

The Woods realized one of their dreams when they bought the building that houses Sylvia's Restaurant. Family members say they anticipate many more years of serving diners in the same spot in Harlem where they began 45 years ago.

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