True grits

Sylvia Woods' life began in cotton fields of the South. Today she andher family run a multi-million dollar soul-food business up North.

If you're a New Yorker, you know who Sylvia Woods is. She's the city's "Queen of Soul Food," the sweet lady with the warm smile and big glasses who runs a multimillion-dollar enterprise with her name on it up in Harlem.

And even if you're not a New Yorker, you've probably heard of Sylvia's. Spike Lee, Diana Ross, Muhammed Ali, Robert F. Kennedy, Jack Kemp, Winnie Mandela, Martin Luther King, Sr., and Jesse Jackson are only a handful of the celebrity customers who have dined at the down-home soul food restaurant over the years.

On a daily basis, busloads of European and Japanese tourists fill the dining room. The restaurant's popularity with the French is so great that there's been serious talk of setting up an annex in Paris.

John Mariani, food and travel columnist for Esquire magazine, says Sylvia's attracts because Mrs. Woods is "a beacon" who "welcomes everybody with open arms and proves that barbecue is not something that stops being made well north of the Mason-Dixon line."

"She showed that a woman, someone who wasn't in the mainstream or part of the power structure, could make it," says Clark Wolf, a New York-based food and restaurant consultant. Her restaurant "has become chic because it's good and because" - like its owner - "it's got a little spunk."

So how did a little girl who started out picking cotton on a farm in South Carolina end up with a name that has circled the globe, and a reputation that has transcended her profession?

According to Woods, credit for her success really belongs to her mother and grandmother, who taught her a few simple but powerful lessons (see story, below).

"Always respect people, always be obedient, care about your reputation, and trust in God," Woods remembers her mother telling her. "Oh," she adds, her face brightening as she recalls. "And love. Always love. That's what she taught me."

Those were lessons that had already shaped Woods long before she came to New York City in 1945 as a young mother and wife, and certainly well before she had ever dreamed of making her living as a restaurateur.

Woods never knew her father - he died when she was a few days old - but she grew up as a much-loved and carefully disciplined only child on the farm her mother and grandmother worked. She was just a girl when she and her husband (they met picking beans at ages 11 and 13) decided opportunities in the South were too limited for them.

"My husband couldn't find a decent job down there," she recalls. "We would never have gotten anywhere."

So they settled in Harlem. Her husband drove a taxi and she found a factory job on Long Island. But she soon wearied of the commute, and eagerly jumped at the chance to work as a waitress at a local spot called "Johnson's Luncheonette."

She knew nothing of the work, however. The day she started, in fact, she had never even eaten in a restaurant, as blacks were still not welcome in most Southern establishments. She laughs now as she recalls that she didn't know what a coffee urn was or how to use it.

But she learned by watching the other waitresses. Soon she became Mr. Johnson's second-in-command. But she was totally unprepared for the day in 1961 when he told her he was ready to retire and asked her if she'd like to buy the place from him for $20,000. "I thought it was a joke," she remembers. "I just laughed."

Apart from the other obstacles facing her, Woods knew how hard it was for blacks to obtain business loans at that time. (Her boss - who was black- had applied for a loan sometime earlier and because he feared a color barrier, he had his wife, who was white, do all the initial paperwork for him. The day he appeared at the bank to sign the papers, bank officials took one look at him and told him the papers had been lost and it wouldn't be possible to do the deal).

But Woods had one asset going for her - her mother's farm. Her mother took out a second mortgage and allowed her to buy the restaurant.

Woods knew so little about business dealings that she didn't even consult a lawyer before signing the contract. "You see what a blessed child she is," says her daughter Bedelia. "God was surely watching over her."

But Woods acknowledges that it was a scary time in some ways. If the restaurant had failed under her ownership, the farm would have been lost as well. But she says she bolstered herself with the assurance that, "God wouldn't have given me the opportunity and then not given me the ability to succeed."

And succeed she did - beyond anyone's wildest dreams. She changed the name of the tiny luncheonette, with its six booths and 15 seats at the counter, to Sylvia's. She maintained its Southern-style menu, featuring smothered pork chops, grits, corn bread, and collard greens.

And she poured out warmth to her clientele. "I called everybody honey, darling, sweetie, love," she says. "You see how people want that."

Sylvia's became a popular local institution. But it was in 1979 that the little restaurant struck gold. Famed New York magazine food critic Gael Greene came uptown to investigate soul food and then wrote a cover story in which she proclaimed Sylvia "the queen."

Suddenly the place was jumping. At around the same time, a tour operator came to her and asked if she would do a tasting menu for small groups of European tourists that he'd like to bring through a couple of times a week.

"It was the tourists who brought us out of the darkness into the light," says Woods.

Soon the place had expanded into a 270-seat restaurant with a 150-seat banquet hall next door. Today, Zagat's guide to New York restaurants warns that going to Sylvia means running the risk of "being run over by a tour bus crowd" of Japanese, Koreans, or Europeans, especially at the popular Sunday gospel brunch. But real New Yorkers eat there, too; in fact, Zagat's goes on to state that "all true New Yorkers should try it."

The $3.4-million restaurant was joined by a $2.5-million clone in Atlanta in 1997, and a line of Sylvia's food products launched in 1993 for sale in super markets is now a $1.3-million business, in addition to a thriving catering business. The family is also eyeing several other cities as possible expansion sites.

Sylvia's husband Herbert, all four of her adult children, and six of her sixteen grandchildren work full time at the restaurant with her, although her son Kenneth, director of operations at Sylvia's, confesses, "My mother, at 73, still works more hours than we do."

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