Article by Tren’ness Woods-Black
New York City is the greatest city in the world and its hospitality industry represents the melting pot of diversity and people from all walks of life who have contributed to it. The story of the late Sylvia Woods, the Queen of Soul Food and founder of beloved Harlem institution Sylvia’s Restaurant demonstrates the amazing opportunities our industry has provided countless people of color through the years and the pride that Black-owned businesses still feel today.
August 1, 1962, the day that my grandmother opened Sylvia’s Restaurant “was not yesterday” as she used to say. Following the recent gross injustices of Black people around the nation, I can’t help but connect the dots, struggles, victories, and life altering similarities of her experiences to what’s happening now. But to explore all that Sylvia’s Restaurant means and represents one must understand her story, which begins with a young Black soldier and expecting father.
Van Pressley, Sylvia’s father, left his home in South Carolina to fight in World War 1. Van left the segregated South for the segregated Army. He fought for a country that did not fight for him and was sent home ill from exposure to poisonous gas. Very much aware that his time here on earth was limited, he made a prayer pact between God and his young bride, Julia. The pact was for their unborn child to have a life easier than his, and for him at the very least to meet the child his wife was carrying. On February 2, 1926, Sylvia Woods was born, and it was only days later that Van Pressley passed away.
Julia, whose own father was lynched for a crime he did not commit, was determined to pour all she had into her child. Working in the footsteps of her mother, Julia became a midwife and farmer and never remarried. Instead she worked day and night to ensure young Sylvia’s destiny. It was soon thereafter that Julia’s mother became ill, and when young Sylvia began to care for her grandmother while her mother worked their fields. To this day, that remains Sylvia’s first memory: fanning the flies away from her grandmother who was dying from what we now know as Alzheimer’s.
After her grandmother’s passing, Sylvia was a great help and the love of her mother’s life. She eagerly started cooking at the age of six. The first dish she mastered was rice. Though quick to do things her own way and distracted by play, Sylvia’s first go at cooking was a failure…she burned the rice. She told her mother that she was watching over it as instructed but Julia knew a lie when she saw one and just like that Sylvia learned her first lesson of cooking – minding your pot and always telling the truth would be gems that would lead towards the success of the pact being lived out.
By age eleven, Sylvia met her beloved husband, Herbert Woods while picking beans after school. This story is one I would ask her to repeat often, just to see that childlike blush come over her face. She described Herbert as the prettiest boy she has ever seen. Ripped clothing and all, the two fell in love and later married.
The bright lights of Harlem called, and Sylvia and Herbert joined the migration north to escape the harshness of the Jim Crow South. The newlyweds landed in Harlem in 1944 where Herbert took odd jobs and Sylvia worked in a Long Island factory. One day on her dreaded commute to work, she passed Johnson’s luncheonette and noticed a help wanted sign. She took a chance and went in.
Mr. Johnson asked Sylvia if she had restaurant experience and she quickly answered yes. He then asked her to go behind the lunch counter to make a pot of coffee. As she got closer, she remembered burning the rice as a child. She then told Mr. Johnson that she was raised on a farm in South Carolina and had been cooking all of her life. She also told him that she had never been in a restaurant before, but if he gave her this opportunity that she would be his best worker. Sixteen years later when Mr. Johnson wanted to sell the business, he offered it to Sylvia, his best waitress.
The year was 1962 and the climate in America was much like it is in 2020. Sylvia, as a Black woman could not get a traditional loan. Mr. Johnson, a Black business owner knew that she would have to ask her mother to borrow money against the family farm. Sylvia did as he suggested and although the value wasn’t quite enough, Mr. Johnson sold the 35-seat luncheonette to his guests’ favorite waitress, Sylvia Woods.
On August 1, 1962 Sylvia’s Restaurant was born. Sylvia and her family grew the business to its present-day status, an institution that has served everyone from celebrities, to everyday Harlemites, to Heads-of-States and Presidents alike. Her parents’ prayer continues to be lived out, as three generations of Woods Family own and operate the business; inclusive of a national line of Sylvia’s Food Products, two successful cookbooks, an impressive real estate portfolio and Sylvia’s most prized accomplishment – The Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Foundation. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Woods Family started a Sunday Food Pantry in Partnership with the National Action Network and the CARE Organization.
The story of Sylvia’s cannot be written without its past. And each new day brings with new life, love, and opportunity that makes Sylvia’s the endearing Harlem restaurant that still sustains its community today.
Tren’ness Woods-Black is President and Chief Strategist of Tren’ness Woods-Black, LLC Passion for People, Poised for Press and granddaughter of the late Sylvia Woods, renowned founder of the Soul Food icon, Sylvia’s Restaurant where she serves as the VP Communications. With over 20 years experience in the restaurant industry and as a seasoned communications executive, Tren’ness has worked for clients such as Sylvia’s restaurant and food products, National Action Network and J. Walter Thompson. She has successfully brokered marketing deals with Target, Splenda, Starbucks, and Whirlpool to name a few. Her philanthropic efforts have raised over one hundred thousand dollars for The Sylvia and Herbert Woods Scholarship Fund. Tren’ness has served as a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, is Co-Chair and founding Board Member of Harlem Park to Park and serves on the Board of Directors for NYC & Company and the NYC Hospitality Alliance.