Sylvia Woods started out feeding Harlem, and now she wants to give the world a taste of her famous soul food. Baltimore figures prominently in her plan.

TRUE GRITS

January 25, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW YORK -- Sylvia Woods is 72, old enough to understand how God feels. Oh, sure, he probably wouldn't mind retirement, but instead he ended up just like her, working six days a week. The Almighty and Sylvia have the same problem. Too many mouths to feed.

It's not even 1 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, and she's already fed husband Herbert, most of the kitchen staff, Lonnie, the jazz band, Lonnie again, a few early birds all the way up from Richmond, those four crazy hayseeds in from West Texas, the entire crew of a hip-hop video, a pair of nice white folks from down near Washington, a sweet couple from up near 138th Street, and enough Japanese tourists to fill 100 sub-compacts. God knows all four of her kids are still working for her, so while they didn't eat at Sylvia's today, when you check the ledger sheet of the King of the Angels you'll find Her name is paying for all their meals.

Sylvia Woods won't stop there. In the beginning, she was feeding just Lenox Avenue, then the surrounding neighborhood, and then it was all of Harlem that was eating her Southern fried chicken and giblets and salmon cakes and ribs and pork chitterlings and collard greens and (deep breath) sweet potato pie. In 1979, one of New York's almighty food critics heard about the almighty Queen of Soul Food, and pretty soon Sylvia was feeding all of New York City: musicians and mayors, cabbies and councilmen, bankers and Black Panthers. God help us! The woman even fed a few Republicans.

"Some people work for love, some people work for money, but Sylvia feels she has a spiritual calling to feed the whole world," says Lonnie Youngblood, the well-fed lead singer of the band that performs every Saturday as part of the restaurant's jazz brunch. "That's why she's branching out from Harlem. You do know who's next, don't you?"

Baltimore's next. In 1998, Sylvia's of Harlem, the most famous soul-food restaurant in New York if not the world, is expected to bring the Gospel Brunch to Charm City. Sylvia's son Van, who is president of Sylvia Woods Enterprises LLC has been scouting locations in Baltimore, and taking meetings with Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III, who is helping in the search. All that is being said at this point is that the restaurant will be near the Inner Harbor. "But it's certain we're coming," says Van Woods. "You can just about make your reservations."

The Baltimore restaurant, which would be the second Sylvia's outside Harlem (an Atlanta location opened last February), already is shaping up as a crucial test. The Woods family wants Sylvia's to become nothing less than the African-American Planet Hollywood, the soul-food version of the Hard Rock Cafe, with restaurants in every major urban tourist center from New Orleans to Tokyo.

The Woods have carefully lined up financial backers -- a well-heeled Florida family and Wall Street investment bank J.P. Morgan -- who are as good as golden fried chicken. But expanding is still a gamble. The history of Sylvia's is one of the great, seamless success stories of an American family business -- black or white. Why risk a blemish on a divine record?

"I don't think it's much of a risk," says Henson. "Baltimore is like a lot of cities: It needs a good soul-food restaurant, particularly one that can appeal to tourists and visitors. And everyone has heard of Sylvia's."

Sylvia Woods was lucky. Her mom, Julia Pressley, saved and scrimped, and even took a train north to New York in 1929 to work in a laundry. She returned to South Carolina with enough money to buy a piece of land and a four-room boarding house.

Rice and beans -- that's what Sylvia learned during her childhood. Julia let her daughter know early on that food was holy, let her in on the lesson when Sylvia was 8 and burned the rice and mom spanked her for it. Three years later, Sylvia turned 11 and made another discovery: a beautiful 12-year-old boy named Herbert Woods whom she met in a bean patch not far from home. Rice and beans.

Herbert, who spent time as a steward on a Navy warship in the Pacific, married Sylvia in 1944, and Van arrived a year later. Like a lot of Southern folks, they saw a future up North, and settled in New York. Herbert drove a cab. Sylvia lied about her experience and got a job as a waitress at Johnson's Luncheonette on 127th Street and Lenox Avenue in Harlem. Sylvia says she didn't even know what a coffee urn was back then, and burned herself the first time she tried to use one.

But Andrew Johnson liked Sylvia. In 1960, he took a vacation and left her in charge. Sylvia didn't know it then, but Johnson was testing her, and she passed. The luncheonette owner was having financial trouble. In 1962, he offered to sell her the place for $20,000. Sylvia didn't have the money, but her mother, convinced Sylvia would burn no more rice, agreed to mortgage her farm.

"At the time, I didn't know if I could handle it," Sylvia says now. "I'm a farm girl, and suddenly my name is on the front of a restaurant in New York City."

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