By Daniel Massey
It began as an act of survival when Sybil Bernard-Kerrut was laid off from her job in 1975.
With nine children to feed, the immigrant from Guyana began baking tennis rolls in her Far Rockaway kitchen in 1976 to sell to neighbors. As orders for the puffed, lemony rolls increased, she expanded her operation, opening a restaurant and bakery on Hillside Avenue in Jamaica in 1978.
Twenty-five years later, Sybil’s is a New York City institution. Though Bernard-Kurrut died last year, her mini-empire of West Indian restaurants lives on through the work of her children. There are three Sybil’s locations in Brooklyn and Queens, with none busier than the 132-17 Liberty Ave. restaurant and bakery owned by her son, Viburt “Cooky” Bernard, in Richmond Hill.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, the small shop was packed with people from noon until its midnight closing time.
The restaurant caters mostly to take-out orders, but has an outdoor eating area and indoor countertops where diners can catch up on news from the Caribbean through the many weekly newspapers stacked high along a wall.
“There are crowds every weekend,” said Sandra Hill, the restaurant’s manager. According to the most recent city Department of Planning statistics, 3,450 Guyanese came to the neighborhoods surrounding Sybil’s from 1992 to 1996. Community groups estimate there are 41,000 Guyanese households in the Richmond Hill area, making Liberty Ave. fertile ground for Bernard’s business, which advertises itself as the “servant of the hungry.”
“The food brings the Guyanese community home,” said Hill. “They don’t miss anything because everything is here.”
Guyanese Americans travel from far and wide to eat at Sybil’s. “Many people come from New Jersey and Long Island where they don’t have this type of food,” said Hill. “When they come and see the stuff here, they go crazy.”
The excitement is generated by such popular offerings as pepper pot, oxtail roti, lo mein and the house specialty, chicken n de ruff, a spicy, fried chicken dish. Pepper pot is a hearty oxtail-based stew enriched with beef, chicken, pork and cassareep, a dark brown syrupy liquid made from cassava root, cloves, water and brown sugar. It is believed to have restorative powers.
The oxtail roti is a spicy, tender meat dish served with a thin pancake-like bread. Most Guyanese tear the bread into pieces and dip it into the spicy, meat stew. Roti is also available with beef, chicken, goat, fish or vegetables.
East Indian and Chinese influences combine to create a Guyanese version of lo mein. Spicier than the familiar Chinese dish, it is one of the most popular dishes at the Liberty Ave. restaurant.
Sybil’s bakery items include pastries such as pineapple tarts and cassava pone. And, yes, Bernard is still selling the tennis rolls that started it all. A pack of 6 costs $1.50.
Refreshing drinks are a staple in Guyana and Sybil’s offers 52 varieties of fresh juice. As the menu says, “internal moisture” keeps bones “strong and well-formed” and ensures “your skin and hair get luster.”
Patrons can order a drink made from carrots, apples, beets and spinach that claims to help alleviate depression, or one with oranges, parsley, carrots, cucumbers and papaya that supposedly cures impotence.
When asked if the creative combinations are effective, Hill replied with a smile, “yes, they work.”
While Sybil’s is known for its food, it is also a fixture in Richmond Hill community life. Bernard recently threw his annual Labor Day block party to thank the customers who line up and take numbers to be served in his restaurant.
“It’s a thank you to the community,” he said. Throughout the year, Bernard donates funds and food to neighborhood organizations.
“Whenever you need him, he’s there,” said Anthony Andrews, while campaigning for the District 28 city council seat. “He’s old school, giving back to the community when you receive. I’m sure his mother is smiling now looking down on her son.”
Reach reporter Daniel Massey by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 156.