June 19, 2021


Free For All Food

How Harlem’s iconic soul meals restaurant is preventing for its neighborhood

If you’ve got been to New York City’s Harlem community then you have definitely occur throughout Sylvia’s — a 58-calendar year-old iconic soul meals cafe. For its many years, Sylvia’s has weathered several storms, but none like COVID-19. The pandemic has ravished the hospitality market and still left many restaurants having difficulties to stay afloat. This is Sylvia’s pandemic story as informed to CBS News’ Chevaz Clarke by Tren’ness Woods-Black, one particular of the founder’s 18 grandchildren and the restaurant’s vice president of communications and strategic partnership.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Sylvia's

© Raymond Boyd / Getty

Sylvia’s, in advance of COVID, was the world’s kitchen. It was the area that travelers and Harlemites alike would go to on a day by day foundation just to feel that heat Southern soul food hospitality. People experienced their very own seats that they were being accustomed to sitting down at on a day-to-day foundation. At lunchtime, our dining area played host to all types of meetings — superstars signing contracts, or NBA gamers coming from the Players Affiliation subsequent door. The cafe prior to COVID was a vault of tales in the background of the African American community. It was a stunning meeting position.


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For above 40 decades, the cafe was just one of the biggest companies of minorities in Harlem. And prior to COVID, we experienced more than 100 personnel. But then COVID strike. Having to lay off about 100 people today that you contemplate relatives was the most difficult thing that my father and his siblings had to do.  The group tends to glance at us for convenience and steering, so Sylvia’s has come to be that beacon of hope during occasions of issues. We knew that we desired to keep open as extended as it was protected to do so, so right away our notice went to how to make confident the marquee stays lit. 

a group of people standing in front of a building: This 2016 image shows Sylvia's in Harlem. / Credit: Raymond Boyd / Getty

© Offered by CBS News
This 2016 impression reveals Sylvia’s in Harlem. / Credit rating: Raymond Boyd / Getty

Thank God we appear from a big family members, so we ended up ready to conduct all of the obligations and obligations to retain the cafe likely. My father, and his sisters, and my cousins and my siblings labored just about every day to make certain that we ended up able to be of assistance to the group.

Acquiring been close to for so very long, we’ve experienced other predicaments in the neighborhood exactly where we’ve had to action up to the plate in a big way and donate food stuff, like immediately after Hurricane Sandy, but with the pandemic impacting our sales, we could not do that alone this time. My father came up with the phrase, “when the nation bleeds, Harlem hemorrhages.”

Which is when we set in a phone to Reverend Al Sharpton, and the National Action Community as they had been feeding people six days a 7 days and requested, “Hey, can we have some form of partnership?” 

Inside of 24 several hours, Sharpton experienced assembled a complete team of volunteers for us to be able to completely transform Sylvia’s into a independent pantry on Sundays. We would give out about 1,300 foods in an hour. In just no time, we started obtaining phone calls and email messages from all over the environment inquiring, “how can we support?” And so, I arrived up with the Sylvia’s Feed a Loved ones plan where individuals could invest in a reward card and we would then donate that present card at the Sunday pantry along with the own protective gear and unpackaged food items. I was genuinely appreciative that the calls to support came in when they did simply because we necessary an SOS. The line was heading all over the block to the upcoming Avenue and it would start off assembling hrs prior to our pantry would open. 

Correct now, my emphasis is on exploring what the industry is going to glance like submit-COVID. Prior to COVID in New York City, Black men and women accounted for 2% of business ownership. And with all the information and facts that I’ve been privy to with the several boards that I sit on, almost everything exhibits that that amount is likely to probably be about .2% when this clears, and it is for numerous good reasons. Black and Brown company proprietors have fewer accessibility to money. We have underlying overall health circumstances that COVID tends to like, these as diabetic issues, weight problems, large blood tension, bronchial asthma. Those people who have entry to funds and wealth, they are ready to acquire gain of these alternatives to purchase real estate that is been deserted by men and women who have poured their existence personal savings into their organizations. 

a man and a woman sitting at a table eating food: Tren'ness Woods-Black with her grandmother, Sylvia Woods. / Credit: Tren'ness Woods-Black

© Provided by CBS Information
Tren’ness Woods-Black with her grandmother, Sylvia Woods. / Credit score: Tren’ness Woods-Black

It is just like my community hawk that I can see traveling around Harlem preying on all the tiny birds — the massive genuine estate businesses are sniffing out what they can purchase. My fear is that when the COVID smoke clears, my neighborhood and other Black and Brown communities all around the region are heading to search incredibly, extremely various. And so I’m just worried that this is just going to be an additional element of gentrification that is heading to take in at the reliable fiber that tends to make a community. 

Our modest businesses are important since we’re the spine of communities. We are the ones that assist the little league groups, the Boys and Ladies Club, the instructors and the seniors. We are the types who have that just one-on-one particular relationship. Big organizations are just not equipped to have that sort of intimate romance with a community. I never want to be in a community that is just designed up of chains. Which is not what America is about. My grandmother is the American aspiration. I am self-built, and that is what we are about. We’re a state that is manufactured up of building our goals materialize.

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