Sylvia Woods, the founder of the famed Harlem soul food restaurant that bears her name, was remembered Tuesday by her patrons and friends as a warm and welcoming trailblazer who turned her small eatery into a bustling city gem.
A wake and public service were being held Tuesday at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Mayor Michael Bloomberg would be among the speakers. Woods died last week at age 86 after dealing with Alzheimer's disease for the past few years.
Woods and her husband, Herbert, natives of South Carolina who met as children, started Sylvia's Restaurant in 1962. The restaurant is a Harlem fixture, with tourists and locals coming there for cornbread, ribs, collard greens, fried chicken and other staples of Southern cooking and politicians, including President Barack Obama, making frequent visits while on the campaign trail.
On Tuesday, mourners filed past an open casket. She was laid out in a cream-colored brocade suit. The altar was adorned with white flowers: roses, orchids and calla lilies.
Paul George, 63, a retired city worker who lives in the neighborhood, said, "Mondays she gave out food to the community. Is there any other restaurant that gives out free food?"
"She was a wonderful, wonderful woman, and she was a woman of God," he said.
Yvonne Maddox, a frequent customer who lives in the neighborhood, said, "I've known her 17 years. She inspired all of us, especially women. Running a business must not have been easy for a black lady 50 years ago and at the same time raising a beautiful family."
From its start as a restaurant, Sylvia's has grown to include multiple cookbooks and a nationwide line of food products. The restaurant marked its 50th anniversary in August. Woods officially stepped down from running the restaurant when she was 80, leaving it in the hands of her children and grandchildren. Herbert Woods died in 2001.
A private service is scheduled for Wednesday at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, where Woods lived.