Tren’ness Woods-Black, granddaughter of Sylvia Woods, is walking in the footsteps of her grandmother and making sure she’s leaving behind a trail for Black hospitality workers to follow.
When people speak of Harlem, and list landmarks found in the borough, they always mention one restaurant: Sylivia’s. Beyond being a haven for delicious soul food since 1962, the dining room has become a meeting space for Harlem, as iconic as the Apollo Theater marquee or Abyssinian Baptist Church.
But for Tren’ness Woods-Black, Sylvia’s is more than a restaurant, it’s a second home where she works alongside her family and welcomes guests who eventually become family. “We call growing up in our family ‘growing up Sylvia’s’,” Tren’ness Woods-Black says of her upbringing as part of the third generation of the family behind the legendary soul food restaurant. She says her late grandmother understood that in order to truly provide hospitality it has to go hand in hand with humility. “My grandmother didn't like to call the people that came in ‘customers’, she would always say, they're ‘our guests’ and they're in our living room when they’re in our dining room and we should appreciate that they spent their hard earned dollars with us.” It’s an ethos that she keeps in mind as she leads restaurant operations, a large Sylvia’s product line, a consulting business and as a founding board member of the New York City Hospitality Alliance.
Woods Black says what the restaurant is known for, and what guests have loved over the years and come back for is the company’s commitment to serving “unapologetic soul food”, a term she uses to describe the menu that Sylvia’s. It’s about paying testament to a long line of farmers and cooks, and enslaved Africans who took what grew on the land they were forced to maintain and made it into an entire cuisine, nourishing families and providing opportunity for Black cooks and chefs to make a living using their culinary skills. “Someone once asked my grandfather why it was called soul food and he said, ‘you know, I think the reason is because it comes from soil’,” she says. When she thought about that comment, and her family’s long line of cooks and farmers that used their gifts to carve out a life, she saw how the love put into the earth can rival the love put into a dish and served to guests. “That comment really stayed with me,” she says. It’s a lesson that she brings into her work everyday as she thinks about her brand and about providing hospitality to guests. “This food, this service is paying homage to our history,” she says. “Soul food is the original farm to table.”
It’s also a big part of how she views the future of her work with NYC Hospitality Alliance, a role that requires looking at the culinary industry in New York and at large. “I want to see more inclusion, more recognition, more scholarships for African Americans in hospitality,” she says. Seeing how Black culinary innovators are often overlooked despite their brilliance and hard work is something she knows firsthand being the granddaughter of one of New York’s most legendary culinarians. When she was younger and worked at Sylvia’s as a hostess, she watched chefs, dignitaries, neighbors, presidents and celebrities come to her grandmother’s restaurant, and ask for pictures. What she saw later was a business owner who shaped a generation of restaurateurs in New York City and beyond as she was building an empire and breaking barriers as a Black woman in the 1960’s without ever getting proper credit for that work. “My grandmother bought ten buildings in Harlem, owned a city block, has two cookbooks still in print and Sylvia’s has 40 product sku’s and my grandmother doesn’t have a James Beard Foundation award,” she says. Noticing how her grandmother is often overlooked has inspired her to push for change in the industry, starting with the Sylvia and Herbert Woods scholarship program which has given out over 130 awards to students, and including her work on the board of NYC Hospitality Alliance. “My goal is to ensure we are the leading hospitality organization that’s going to recognize the contributions of African Americans and make space for the necessary change.”
Recently during a video shoot, Woods-Black noticed that the floor of her family’s restaurant needed to be swept. She could’ve asked for someone to take care of it, but instead she rolled up her sleeves and took care of it and even took a few orders and said hello to longtime customers as she waited for filming to begin. “In my family, you just kind of get in and do whatever needs to be done,” she says. Jumping in and getting it done, while also providing hospitality is just how she was raised and the way her grandmother would want her eponymous restaurant to run.
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