How Harlem’s iconic soul food restaurant is fighting for its community

If you’ve been to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood then you’ve certainly come across Sylvia’s — a 58-year-old iconic soul food restaurant. For its decades, Sylvia’s has weathered many storms, but none like COVID-19. The pandemic has ravished the hospitality industry and left many restaurants struggling to stay afloat. Here’s Sylvia’s pandemic story as told to CBS News’ Chevaz Clarke by Tren’ness Woods-Black, one of the founder’s 18 grandchildren and the restaurant’s vice president of communications and strategic partnership.

Sylvia’s, before COVID, was the world’s kitchen. It was the place that tourists and Harlemites alike would go to on a daily basis just to feel that warm Southern soul food hospitality. People had their own seats that they were accustomed to sitting at on a daily basis. At lunchtime, our dining room played host to all types of meetings — celebrities signing contracts, or NBA players coming from the Players Association next door. The restaurant prior to COVID was a vault of stories in the history of the African American community. It was a beautiful meeting place.

For over 40 years, the restaurant was one of the largest employers of minorities in Harlem. And prior to COVID, we had over 100 employees. But then COVID hit. Having to lay off over 100 people that you consider family was the hardest thing that my father and his siblings had to do. The community tends to look at us for comfort and guidance, so Sylvia’s has become that beacon of hope during times of trouble. We knew that we needed to stay open as long as it was safe to do so, so immediately our attention went to how to make sure the marquee stays lit.

This 2016 image shows Sylvia's in Harlem. / Credit: Raymond Boyd / Getty
This 2016 image shows Sylvia’s in Harlem. / Credit: Raymond Boyd / Getty

Thank God we come from a large family, so we were able to perform all of the duties and responsibilities to keep the restaurant going. My father, and his sisters, and my cousins and my siblings worked every day to make sure that we were able to be of service to the community.

Having been around for so long, we’ve had other situations in the community where we’ve had to step up to the plate in a major way and donate food, like after Hurricane Sandy, but with the pandemic affecting our sales, we couldn’t do that alone this time. My dad came up with the phrase, “when the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.”

That’s when we put in a call to Reverend Al Sharpton, and the National Action Network as they were feeding people six days a week and asked, “Hey, can we have some sort of partnership?”

Within 24 hours, Sharpton had assembled a whole team of volunteers for us to be able to transform Sylvia’s into a separate pantry on Sundays. We would give out over 1,300 meals in an hour. Within no time, we started getting calls and emails from around the world asking, “how can we help?” And so, I came up with the Sylvia’s Feed a Family program where folks could purchase a gift card and we would then donate that gift card at the Sunday pantry along with the personal protective equipment and unpackaged food. I was really appreciative that the calls to help came in when they did because we needed an SOS. The line was going around the block to the next Avenue and it would start assembling hours before our pantry would open.

Right now, my focus is on researching what the industry is going to look like post-COVID. Prior to COVID in New York City, Black people accounted for 2% of business ownership. And with all the information that I’ve been privy to with the various boards that I sit on, everything shows that that number is going to probably be around 0.2% when this clears, and it’s for several reasons. Black and Brown business owners have less access to capital. We have underlying health conditions that COVID tends to like, such as diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, asthma. Those who have access to capital and wealth, they’re able to take advantage of these opportunities to purchase real estate that’s been abandoned by people who have poured their life savings into their businesses.

Tren'ness Woods-Black with her grandmother, Sylvia Woods. / Credit: Tren'ness Woods-Black
Tren’ness Woods-Black with her grandmother, Sylvia Woods. / Credit: Tren’ness Woods-Black

It’s just like my neighborhood hawk that I can see flying over Harlem preying on all the little birds — the large real estate companies are sniffing out what they can purchase. My fear is that when the COVID smoke clears, my community and other Black and Brown communities around the country are going to look very, very different. And so I’m just afraid that this is just going to be another component of gentrification that is going to eat at the authentic fiber that makes a community.

Our small businesses are important because we’re the backbone of communities. We’re the ones that support the little league teams, the Boys and Girls Club, the teachers and the seniors. We’re the ones who have that one-on-one connection. Large companies are just not equipped to have that type of intimate relationship with a community. I don’t want to be in a neighborhood that is just made up of chains. That’s not what America is about. My grandmother is the American dream. I’m self-made, and that’s what we’re about. We’re a country that is made up of making our dreams happen.

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