Sylvia Woods

Several African-American women entrepreneurs have expressed their appreciation for Sylvia Woods following news that the “Queen of Soul Food” had died on Thursday at the age of 86 in New York.

Woods, who started her soul-food restaurant in Harlem in the early 1960s, was remembered as a ground- breaking entrepreneur who paved the way for women of color.

African-American entrepreneur Elizabeth Woods (no relation to Sylvia Woods), Founder of Magnificent Quiche, called Sylvia Woods a trailblazer who left a legacy that “you can do it.”

Sylvia Wood’s namesake restaurant started small but grew into a popular soul-food restaurant frequented by politicians, celebrities, tourists, and neighborhood residents.

“I know the struggles as a woman and as a woman of color to have courage and step out of your zone and step into an arena where you have the perseverance, the courage and the wherewithal to stand and have faith in your product or service,” Elizabeth told The Story Exchange.

She added that growing her own business, making and selling dozens of varieties of quiche, requires the determination that she has long admired in Woods. “She was a phenomenal woman to stand alone and to fight for her business … This is what I’m fighting for now,” she said. “Thank you for giving us Sylvia Woods.”

Judi Henderson-Townsend, the African-American founder of Mannequin Madness, said it was Wood’s longevity in business and ability to attract a diverse crowd that she admired most.

“Sylvia was one of the first African-American female business owners that had clients of all nationalities – even internationally. That was unheard of when she started her business,” Henderson-Townsend told The Story Exchange.

“When I visited Harlem and saw tour buses bringing tourists from all over the world to eat at Sylvia’s restaurant, it brought tears to my eyes.” Henderson-Townsend said that Woods, who worked until she was 80, is an example of: “if you love what you do, it doesn’t seem like work.”

African-American entrepreneur Marjorie Perry, who founded MZM, her multi-million dollar construction and transportation business, recalled visiting Sylvia Wood’s restaurant as a teenager in the mid-1960s.

“It was like going to her home in the early days,” Perry told The Story Exchange. She said Woods was a role model for the younger generation that ‘you can do this.’ “This was still a time of discrimination, and access to capital for an African-American business was difficult.”

“She overcame adversity and prospered. She was innovative and really leveraged her business and turned it into a legacy.”

Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter, a beauty products company, said the news of Woods passing made her sad adding: “As an entrepreneur, I respect and honor her memory and pray that I may follow in the footsteps of someone who not only had success in her lifetime but whose success will continue to live on.”

Woods always stood out with her determination and entrepreneurial spirit. As a young girl, she received her beautician license at night while attending junior High School during the day.

She opened the first farmhouse salon in her hometown in South Carolina, but in 1962 she followed her true passion. On Aug. 1, 1962, Sylvia’s Restaurant opened with only six booths and 15 stools in Harlem offering ribs, hot cakes, corn bread and fried chicken. She became known as the “Queen of Soul Food” thanks to the popularity of her dishes.

According to the New York Times:

A culinary anchor and the de facto social center of Harlem, Sylvia’s has served the likes of Roberta Flack; Quincy Jones; Diana Ross; Muhammad Ali; Bill Clinton; Jack Kemp; Robert F. Kennedy; and, besides Mr. Bloomberg, Mayors Edward I. Koch and David N. Dinkins, who was partial, Ms. Woods said, to the chicken, candied yams, collard greens and black-eyed peas with rice. Busloads of tourists from as far away as Japan routinely descend on the place …

Sylvia met her future husband, Herbert Deward Woods, when she was 11 and he was 12 and both were working in the fields, picking beans under the blazing sun.

In the 1950s, Ms. Woods began work as a waitress at Johnson’s Luncheonette in Harlem; because she had grown up poor in the Jim Crow era, the day she first set foot in the place was the first time she had been inside a restaurant anywhere.

In 1962, with help from her mother, who mortgaged the family farm, Ms. Woods bought the luncheonette and renamed it Sylvia’s. Three decades ago, Gael Greene, the food critic of New York magazine, wrote a laudatory article on Sylvia’s, sealing the restaurant’s success.

Over time, Sylvia’s expanded to seat more than 250; it is the cornerstone of a commercial empire that today includes a catering service and banquet hall and a nationally distributed line of prepared foods. Ms. Woods, known for her effusive warmth in greeting customers, ran the business until her retirement at 80.

Thank you Sylvia Woods for being an early role model and a source of inspiration for all women.