BY TRONE DOWD
Sybil’s has been a staple of the Guyanese community for more than three decades, and for good reason.
The family restaurant is known world wide as a place to get traditional, Caribbean style dishes reminiscent of home. It was the vision of Sybil Bernard-Kerrutt, a hard working mother who grew her skills in the kitchen into a citywide phenomenon.
Sybil Bernard-Kerrutt started Sybil’s in 1976, out of her home as a way to make some extra money. Viburt Bernard, son of Bernard-Kerrutt, who now runs the restaurants, recalled that his mother was always quite the hard worker.
“In 1968, my mom left Guyana, looking for a better life,” he said. “We were very, very poor of course as immigrants. We needed to do something to come out of poverty. In those days, in the late 70’s, the Guyanese didn’t have any of these baked products available to them. So we found a niche market supplying that in homes to a few people.”
This all started with the making plaits, a type of bread made in Guyana. She made the baked good out of her home and had them delivered to the small portion of the Guyanese population in New York at the time. With the help of her cousins, she was able to establish a bit of a reach as they were able to drive to many of the people who were spread thin throughout the city.
When the 1980’s came around, the Guyanese population had begun to move to New York in great numbers, many of them hoping to start a new life. Bernard-Kerrutt, who had already made a name for herself at this point, had brand new opportunities. As word of mouth had already put her name on the map in the years prior, it wasn’t long before the new Guyanese population wanted to try some good old-fashioned cooking that reminded them of home.
After opening a store located on 159-24 Hillside Avenue in 1978, they opened several locations in other parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Today, their store in Richmond Hill which opened in 1989, serves as the chain’s biggest operating store and has since become a cultural touchstone for Guyanese businesses in the area.
The Queens Tribune took a tour of the Richmond Hill store located in the heart of what many consider Little Guyana. The operation itself is run like a well oiled machine. Dishes are prepared fresh every morning and throughout the day, keeping up with the demand. Baked goods like Tennis Rolls, chicken patties and beef patties, are produced and even prepared and packaged for delivery to other stores and businesses.
“We know about the certain quality of stuff,” Bernard said. “What you find at Sybil’s here I don’t think you’re going to get them in too many of the bakeries around New York. We were trained in the 60’s and we learned and kept those original recipes from the absolute best.”
Unfortunately, in October 2000, Sybil Bernard-Kerrutt passed away, leaving behind the legacy that continues to thrive today. Viburt said that he and his siblings and co-workers take pride in the work they do and what Sybil’s represents to the community at large long after the passing of his mother.
“This is very important,” he said. “With Sybil’s, it’s about the pride in what we do and putting out our product with quality. Profit is second to quality and service.”
Bernard’s focus on quality and service has worked out in a significant way for Sybil’s. Many of the restaurant’s regular patrons have built a relationship with many of the workers at Sybil’s. They are not afraid to give constructive criticism or a compliment where they see fit. This rapor between the customer and the business is just part of the reason why Sybil’s is the place it is today. But customers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the restaurant’s philosophy.
In an effort to help many of the new individuals coming from Guyana to America, Sybil’s will often employ them, helping them ease into American life with a stable job and familiar eats. The reputation here in the U.S. has made an impact back home too.
“We’re close to Kennedy so for many visitors, this is their first stop in and their last stop out,” he said. “They come here and they know they have to come to Sybil’s because they crave it. People long for it, you know? When you have a taste for things that you grew up with, you long for taste.”
Bernard said that he’s proud of the work that his mother started and he’s been able to continue.
“We’ve been going a long time and we hope to continue that,” Bernard said. “A lot of the credit goes to my staff. They work hard, and are dedicated to keeping this afloat and making things happen.”