Sylvia's Soul Food Owner Dead at 86: Harlem Loses the Queen of Soul Food

Seldom do we ever hear of a non-chain restaurant that is able to transcend the local mom and pop world and become a cultural icon. But a Harlem woman of humble beginnings was able to take a small luncheonette in 1962 and build an empire through soulfulness and congeniality. Sylvia Woods, the Queen of Soul Food, became a household name for serving the best soul food around;  and she did it all with a trademark smile and caring heart. This past Thursday, Woods died at the age of 86. She is survived by four children, 18 grandchildren, seven great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren.

Some people may make the mistake of quickly glancing over Woods' death in the headlines and completely missing out on how much of an impact she has had on the African American community and beyond. People from all around the country are likely to have a Sylvia story. I remember my family rushing to grab a sweat potato pie and waiting on Sylvia's trademark long lines after we weren't able to bake dessert in time for our fourth of July cookout. There was also all the commotion around town when Sylvia finally acquired space in Brooklyn during Brooklyn's revitalization in the late 1990's; saving us all the long subway ride up to Harlem. Even New York City hip hop mogul Funk Master Flex gave Sylvia constant shout outs and accolades on his Hot 97 radio show. And of course, every New Yorker knows that Harlem resident, and jazz enthusiast, Bill Clinton frequent Sylvia's, even during his trips to New York as president.

What Woods was able to do exemplified what a community driven small business is all about; building from scratch, strengthening ties, and giving back. Woods' life and profession is an ideal blueprint for any restaurant owner who doesn't just want to serve the community, but also wants to be apart of it too.    

Sylvia was able to transcend the restaurant industry through a number of hallmark events and programs. One of which was her free Sunday Gospel brunches, which attracted busloads of tourist every week. Another smart investment was her partnership with the Harlem Spiritual bus tours. The company bought 3,500 tourist a month to Harlem flagships including the Black Art Museum, and the Apollo Theater, while also ushering in $18-a-head for Sylvia's. But Woods' most treasured program is the Sylvia and Herbert Woods Endowment Scholarship Fund, which has provided over $235,000 for over 70 scholarships to disadvantaged New York high school students for the past decade.    

If every restaurant, every small business, every venture tried to be as generous as Woods, then the potential for community development would be boundless. From Harlem to Brooklyn, no one will forget the aura of Sylvia, a woman who would even fold napkins and place them on her customers' laps as they waited for their serving of fried chicken, collard-greens, sweat potatoes and corn bread. Woods will be missed, but her work is everlasting.