Woods, Sylvia 1926–
Sylvia Woods 1926–
Sylvia’s Restaurant, a Harlem soul-food landmark, attracts busloads of tourists from all over the United States and around the world, to the tune of approximately $3.5 million in yearly revenues. Sylvia’s is a frequent stop for celebrities and politicians, including world leaders. With the launch of a line of prepared supermarket foods and a new Sylvia’s restaurant in Atlanta, the empire of restaurateur Sylvia Woods has expanded to touch the culinary lives of people all over the country. Yet, writes Woods in her Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, ” there’s nothing that gives me, and now my whole family, as much happiness as knowing that we are giving each and every one of those people something extra: the gift of love that comes free with every meal.”
Woods herself has a remarkable story that encapsulates much of 20th-century African-American history. She was born Sylvia Pressley in Hemingway, South Carolina, on February 2, 1926. Her father, Van Pressley, died three days after she was born from the aftereffects of chemical-weapons injuries he sustained while fighting in World War I. When she was three her mother departed for New York City in search of a chance to make money that would put her family on a solid financial footing. Sylvia was raised partly by her grandmother and, she wrote in Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, “by that whole Hemingway community”—a place that “probably has more great cooks per square inch than you would find in most cooking schools.”
Woods recalled with affection the warmth and closeness of her rural southern community. Nevertheless, she has painful memories. “I didn’t like any part of farm life,” she told Nation’s Restaurant News. “I didn’t understand why people would not let me drink out of the same water fountain, but they would trust me to cook for them and to take care of their dearest thing, their babies.” Her grandfather was hanged after being wrongly accused of participating in a grocery-store robbery when her mother was just an infant.
She met her future husband, Herbert Woods, when she was 11 and he was 12. They were picking green beans, and it was love at first sight for both. In their later teens, Herbert was allowed to court his girlfriend Sylvia only from six to nine p.m. on Wednesday and Sunday evenings, and their romance was further frustrated
At a Glance…
Born Sylvia Pressiey, February 2, 1926, in Hemingway; SC; daughter of Julia and Van Pressley; married Herbert Woods, 1944; children: Van, Bedelia, Kenneth, and Crizette. Education: Graduated from high school in Hemingway; trained as beautician, New York, New York.
Career: Operated beauty shop in Hemingway; moved briefly to California and then to Harlem with husband; worked in hat factory, Queens, NY; worked as waitress, Johnson’s Luncheonette, Harlem, 1954-62; purchased restaurant, 1962; expanded to 275 seats plus catering operation by early 1990s; published Sylvia’s Soul Food, 1992; launched Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food line of supermarket foods, 1992; opened second Sylvia’s restaurant in Atlanta, GA, 1997; published Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, 1999; opened Sylvia’s Express at John F. Kennedy Airport, New York, 2001.
Addresses: Home —Westchester County, New York. Restaurant— 328 Lenox Ave., New York, NY 10027.
when Sylvia’s mother convinced her to move to New York and seek training as a beautician. Woods joined the Navy in hopes of being sent to New York but ended up in San Francisco. The two were finally married in 1944. Over the next few years, they lived off and on in both New York and Hemingway. In her cookbook, Woods wrote, “This back-and-forth from Hemingway to New York set the tone for the rest of my life. I lived in both places and they seemed to come together for us, making the trip from South to North part of the fabric of our lives. Sometimes it seemed as if Hemingway was a suburb of New York, or that New York was the big city down the road from Hemingway. It was a seamless flow rather than a series of moves.”
Sylvia Woods worked in a Queens hat factory for a time, as well, but a turning point came in 1954 when a cousin told Woods that she planned to quit her job at a lunch counter at 126th Street and Lenox Avenue, around the corner from the famed Apollo Theater and within walking distance of the Woods’s 131st Street apartment. Woods, who had rarely even seen the inside of a restaurant, took the job with trepidation and without any thought of ever running one herself. But she impressed the owner, a fellow South Carolinian, with her energy. When he ran into financial trouble with an investment in a black resort in upstate New York, he offered to sell her the restaurant. After her mother took out a $20,000 loan backed by her family farm, Sylvia Woods became the owner of Johnson’s Luncheonette in 1962.
With four children—Van, Bedelia, Kenneth, and Crizette—born between 1949 and 1967, Woods had little time to think of expansion, but Sylvia’s became known far and wide for its fried chicken, collard greens, peach pies, and other soul-food standards. The restaurant moved two doors down from its original location in 1968 and gradually grew to occupy most of the Harlem block on which it rests. Sylvia’s now can seat 450 and boasts a next-door catering operation. Herbert is still by her side.
Diners suggested that Sylvia’s open new branches in other cities, but Woods and her son, Van, who had earned a marketing degree, decided on a different course—one inspired by the customers who would come in at holiday time with empty jars and ask whether they could buy Sylvia’s barbecue sauce.
Launched in 1992 with $200,000 in startup funding and featuring a picture of Woods herself on the label, the Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food line of canned and bottled foods impressed Pathmark supermarket CEO Jim Donald. He told Crain’s New York Business that “Sylvia and Van Woods run their company with their heart and soul.” Sylvia’s hot sauces, candied yams, mustard greens, kidney beans, and 13 other items are available in supermarkets nationwide.
Sylvia’s Soul Food cookbook was also published in 1992. It was followed in 1999 by the more extensive Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, which included Woods’s personal reminiscences and numerous family photographs along with recipes gathered in a giant South Carolina family cook-off.
The success of the Sylvia’s enterprises gained the attention of the community development arm of the huge J.P. Morgan stock brokerage, which partially financed the opening of the long-awaited second Sylvia’s branch in downtown Atlanta in 1997. That restaurant had a rocky start as the Woods family attempted to duplicate the loving attention to detail that had been the hallmark of the original Sylvia’s, but by 1999 the restaurant boasted annual revenues of $2.3 million. The latest addition to the Sylvia’s family is an express outlet at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport; Kenneth Woods, now Sylvia’s Inc.’s director of operations, read in a local newspaper that it would be opening—even though the company had made no such plans. The family also recently expanded beyond food by launching a line of hair and beauty products, under the brand names Sylvia’s Beauty and Soul and African Vision.
The good reputation of the “Sylvia’s” name has put Sylvia Woods’s cookery on a path to growth, with the restaurant’s many admirers hoping to get in on the action. Additional full-service restaurants and express Sylvia’s are planned for the future, increasing the Sylvia’s stable of 200 employees and bringing the soul-food creations of Hemingway, South Carolina, to even more American diners. With all four Woods children involved with the business, it represented a family tradition of the best—and tastiest—kind.
Woods, Sylvia, Sylvia’s Family Soul Food Cookbook, Morrow, 1999.
Black Enterprise, August 1997, p. 99; February 2001, p. 159.
Crain’s New York Business, June 25, 2001, p. 27.
Library Journal, June 15, 1999, p. 102.
Nation’s Restaurant News, March 8, 1993, p. 43; March 10, 1997, p. 37.
Publishers Weekly, June 7, 1999, p. 78.
—James M. Manheim
"Woods, Sylvia 1926–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 19, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/woods-sylvia-1926
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