â€œBrandingâ€?; New Soul Food Mantra
Sylviaâ€™s, open for 45 years at West 126th Street and Lenox Ave, has taken a lesson from large corporations and is in the midst of product diversification. â€œWe have over 70 items with the Sylviaâ€™s brand on the grocery store shelves, and we are continuously increasing our product line,â€? said Trenness Woods
Running a successful soul food restaurant has as much to do with connecting to the soul, as it does with serving up the Southern-inspired food.
Sylvia Woods, founder and owner of Sylvia’s Restaurant in Harlem, summarized why soul food is so popular: “It’s about being comfortable, enjoying the food and taking a piece of the South and Harlem with you,” the spry 81-year-old said.
Today’s soul food restaurant is about establishing that very connection to tradition while turning a profit. Transcending its grits and gravy origin, words like “branding” and “optimal diversification” are hashed out in the kitchens along with the fried chicken.
Sylvia’s, open for 45 years at West 126th Street and Lenox Ave, has taken a lesson from large corporations and is in the midst of product diversification. “We have over 70 items with the Sylvia’s brand on the grocery store shelves, and we are continuously increasing our product line,” said Trenness Woods, director of marketing and public relations for Sylvia’s restaurant.
Already available at Sylvia’s for patrons and visitors is a line of cookbooks and sauces in a small display case near the waiting area. Next for Sylvia’s is taking their restaurant on the road across the states, and expanding the brand.
Yet modern purveyors of soul food realize they cannot rest on their chicken fried laurels; brand expansion is also brewing at Amy Ruth’s, open since 1999 at 113 West 116th St. Restaurant owners just signed a deal with an investor group to expand their business to other locations in New York City, though sites are not yet chosen. “We already had an outpost at Foxwoods casino in Connecticut, and now we want to branch out even more,” said Stephen Lloyd, general manager of Amy Ruth’s.
Amy Ruth’s also expanded its hours to serve late night revelers. “It is a niche to be open at 3, 4 a.m.; 10-15 percent of our business comes from serving late night dinners and breakfasts like chicken and waffles,” Lloyd said.
By all accounts business has been good. “I’ve watched sales go from $25,000 to around $40-45,000 per week,” Lloyd, 48, confirmed. An integral part of this success comes, first and foremost, by making the customer feel comfortable. “Amy Ruth’s has a welcoming spirit, we want it to feel like Grandma’s house.”
This sentiment echoed across Harlem. “This is the Black Cheers, the uptown place where you can be comfortable and everybody knows your name,” said Adriane Ferguson, 40. Ferguson is the chef and owner of Billie’s Black, a new soul food restaurant opened just eight months ago on West 119th Street between Frederick Douglas and St. Nicholas Avenues. “We do an average of $3,000 per week in sales, and I’d like to see it at $3,500, Ferguson said. “But we have to make sure that our restaurant is like home, that it’s real.”
The essence and practice of authenticity is essential to the comfort of diners at a soul food restaurant. “We want to make sure customers are comfortable and we are doing a good job. Last year was our most profitable year. This year is on track to be even better,” said Woods.
Harlem and Soul food go hand in hand. “A lot of what Harlem is about is soul, the people here and the culture we have,” Ferguson said. “Soul food is about connecting to history, and the cooking is like painting. It demands creativity.” Connecting to history is as easy as picking up a leg of honey-dipped fried chicken and tucking into a plate of cheese grits. Said Trenness Woods, “Harlem is a natural fit for a business like ours. The proof is in the cornbread.”
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