As Mother’s Day approaches, and we stop, remember, and pray for that special person in our life, without whom we would not be; and we think of all her struggles and her efforts, towards trying to make us a complete person, we also think of ways to show our gratitude. Mother’s Day is a day to be grateful to God for being so kind as to bless us with someone so special… an angel sent in the form of “Mother”.
While I can’t speak for everyone, the one treat that crosses my mind to share with moms on Mother’s Day is food. And being that soul food is part of the African American culture, I decided to bring some to the table.
In the mid 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement was just beginning, terms like “soul man” “soulful” and just “soul” were used in connection with blacks themselves. It caught on with mainstream America and someone coined the term “soul food” for black cuisine and it stuck. The History of Soul Food
Sylvia Woods, who has been dubbed “The Queen of Soul Food,” is simply “Mom” to her employees. When asked about her management style, Woods was quoted saying, “I work with them and beside them, not behind them.”
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 to Mr. Herbert Woods, 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, Woods 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. Today there are three dining rooms in addition to the original counter. Packed tables and walls lined with photographs of well-fed celebrities who testify to the restaurant’s success.
Woods tries to greet most of the customers who flock to her soul food haven from places as near as her own neighborhood and as far away as Japan. “I love people, and I love to touch my customers,” she said.
She said her most memorable day on the job was when she catered lunch at Yankee Stadium for Nelson Mandela, African National Congress leader.
At 82, Woods has long been officially retired — but she still spends most days at the restaurant, now operated by her children.
Sylvia’s son, Van Woods, has led the family on an aggressive expansion since the early 1980s with the acquisition and development of real estate for the expansion of Sylvia’s Restaurant.
In 1992, Van launched a line of Sylvia’s Soul food products. The line consists of Sylvia’s world famous all-purpose sauces, pre-seasoned vegetables, spices, syrup, cornbread and pancake mixes and several other items. Sylvia’s packaged food is distributed nationally.
With the help of some great investors like, JP Morgan, Sylvia’s was able to open its second restaurant in Atlanta, GA in 1997. Sylvia’s of Atlanta is located at 241 Central Avenue across from City Hall.
In addition to the food chains, Sylvia has had two cookbooks published by William Morrow Company, and her family has developed a line of Beauty products for Hair and Skin care. Sylvia’s beauty products consist of two brands: (1) Sylvia’s Beauty and Soul Products; hair and skin products, (2) African Vision Products; hair and skin products with shea butter and black soap.
Woods said she was influenced the most by her mother, who worked the 35-acre family farm and raised her children single-handedly. As she explained. “My mother always said, ‘If an ox is in a ditch, you’ve got to pull it out.”
When asking the Woods family about the secret of their successes; they are quick to answer: Love; Family and Hard Work; Love of God; Love of Family; Love of Friends, Customers, and Love of Work.
For more information on Sylvia’s Queen of Soul Food visit: sylviassoulfood.com