The soul food at Sylvia's Restaurant in Harlem has attracted its share of celebrity fans over the years, from Bill Clinton to Oprah Winfrey to Nelson Mandela. But it was a recent visit by Bill O'Reilly and Rev. Al Sharpton that made headlines this week. During a conversation about race relations during his syndicated radio show, the outspoken Fox News host praised his uptown meal and cited the experience as evidence dispelling stereotypes that some white Americans hold of black Americans. O'Reilly said he "couldn't get over the fact that there was no difference between Sylvia's restaurant and any other restaurant in New York City. I mean, it was exactly the same, even though it's run by blacks, primarily black patronship," according to published reports.
Those, and other remarks about the Sylvia's outing, now have O'Reilly fending off calls of racism. He claims his words were taken out of context, and that the media has "fabricated a racial controversy where none exists." In the midst of a full-blown media circus, Kenneth Woods, the restaurant's current owner and grandson of its founder, Sylvia Woods, has just kept on serving his signature barbecue ribs, smothered chicken, and grilled catfish. Woods has shrugged off the flap, and said he simply hopes the unexpected attention might bring new customers through the door. So what's it like to be at the epicenter of national controversy as a small-business owner? We decided to ask him.
So how's business been this week?
Business has been fine. We've been doing what we've been doing for the past 45 years, and that's serving up great food with great service.
Any changes since O'Reilly's remarks became national news and put Sylvia's in the spotlight?
It's kind of hard for me to judge. We've had a pretty consistent business, so I didn't notice any big changes this week. One difference is we had so much media around here. If they'd bought a few meals, it would have been great.
In business, is it true that there's no such thing as bad publicity?
It depends on the issue. But anything that sheds positive light on your business is a good thing. I still haven't read the complete conversation that Mr. O'Reilly had, so I'm withholding judgment on that. I'm a businessperson, and I concentrate mostly on running my business.
Would you serve Bill O'Reilly again at the restaurant?
I'd be glad to continue serving Mr. O'Reilly, if he ever came back.
What kind of "craziness" do you think he expected to find?
I'm drawing a complete blank.
After all this buzz, would you ever consider naming a sandwich after him?
I haven't really given that much thought.