Ken Bernard, co-owner of Sybil’s Bakery in Queens, was born in Georgetown, Guyana. His mother, a hairdresser by trade, came to New York City on a visa leaving her nine children behind. Two years later she was able to bring her children to New York, and they began selling Guyanese baked goods from their home to make ends meet. Eventually, the family saved enough money to open a storefront – which now has multiple locations across the city and in Florida. We sat down with Ken to hear more about his mother’s legacy and her impact on the community.
Do you remember the day your mother left Guyana?
I used to sit on the step in the back of my grandmother’s house and sing Lonely is a Man Without Love. My mom was a mother and father – she meant a great deal to us. She brought us here so we could do better for ourselves and become independent. In Guyana, we were very poor. Food was the main concern as a family of nine living in the city, because when you live in the city and you’re not employed, you can’t grow food.
Anyway, we came through. We were living with my Uncle David actually, right here on 169th Street. He had a home – a big house, and we used to live in the basement. My two older brothers, Desmond and Viburt (we call him “Cookie”) worked and helped my Mom put a little money together, and she bought a home. She was able to save a $5,000 down payment, and instead of putting us into the projects, she bought us a home in Far Rockaway.
How did your family start selling baked goods?
I remember it was around springtime in 1976. I was young – I was 19 years old, and we took a trip to Canada. We always used to go there — my grandmother used to live in Canada. Her brothers actually had a bakery back home when we were younger, so when they came over, they went to Canada and they started baking in their house. One time I remember going there and I saw that they were doing this, and I told them of my situation, “Mike, I got laid off or whatever. Maybe I can do what you guys are doing from my house.”
I remember my Uncle coming and buying a 100-pound bag of flour. That’s where this all started.
It was me, my mom and my two sisters because we were the youngest siblings. Everyone else was out to work. My uncle mixed the stuff — the bread, the pastries, the main items that we sell here now by the thousands, and he baked it in the little kitchen oven. He took these oil cans and he cut them and he made baking pans. I remember I was like ten or eleven years old, and I was very impressed, as a kid. And that first day, I actually helped my mom and my uncle on a table and touched the dough, and braided the bread and everything. I was in love with it from then. Just in love with it. So, we started baking every weekend, and I had a cousin that used to take stuff out on the weekend and sell it to friends that he knew. Me and a couple of my brothers would bake in the basement. We made a makeshift bakery. Really, that’s what we did. And we baked there until 1978.
And now you’re an institution!
We have all kinds of customers at Sybil’s. Even though the majority are Caribbean people, we have a lot of people coming in now, and we give thanks for that. We accept that. Somebody put up something on the Internet the other day…a young kid, and they sent it to me on the phone. It’s one of these things they make up now. I don’t know what they call it. It said, “You think your breakup is bad? Imagine if Sybil’s closed down.”
You’ve made it to meme status.
That is what it was. Yes, it was a meme. Right, that’s what they call it? The younger generation is thinking about Sybil’s. So I think we made a really good impact on our community. Even Guyanese people abroad, anywhere you go, if you mention it, [they say] “Oh, I know Sybil’s.” My mom always used to tell us, “You guys are not going to have a lot of money, but you’re going to be famous. People are going to know you.” That’s fulfillment. We don’t really have a lot of money, but we’re popular. People know us.
What do you think are some of the most valuable life lessons that your mom left with you?
Being responsible — my mom left that with me, and she loved that about me. But she had a saying to us, raising six boys. She used to say, “If you want to be a big man in the night, you got to be a big man in the day.” That’s something that sticks with us. And we tell each other that. We used to like to go and party at night and then in the morning we couldn’t come to work.
So she left us strong as men and women, and she left us knowing that, yeah, you can live the American dream. You can go to America, you can make money, you can buy a house, you can send your kids to school — all these things came through Mom. And most of all, she left us a lot of love. Money can’t buy that. Love built all of this.
To hear more of Ken’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Eleven of the Open Belly podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
13217 Liberty Ave, Jamaica, NY 11419
159-24 Hillside Avenue, Jamaica, NY 11432
4938 N University Dr, Lauderhill, FL 33351
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Images by Alyssa Broadus & Chris Dolt | Edited by Emily Neudorf & Kristen Reames