“Hard work keeps a business going; you have to have passion and the right people around you with similar passion. If you are just looking for the money it won’t last, you have to have the passion and love for the work, and that is what we have been doing over the years to keep the business going.”
By Sharmain Grainger
A patriot is said to be someone who vigorously supports his or her country and is prepared to defend it against enemies or detractors.
We here at Kaieteur News have happened upon quite a few patriots in their own right, over the years, the most recent being a man by the name of Viburt Bernard, better known to many as “Cookie”.
His patriotism has been linked to the food industry, and Cookie is not one who is prepared to see foods from yesteryear being reduced to tasteless dishes parading as authentic Guyanese cuisine. No! Cookie could never stand for this, especially not since he grew up with the aroma of freshly-made foods that filled the atmosphere and expectedly tantalized when they came into contact with the taste buds.
Cookie currently sits at the helm of a thriving food business called Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant situated on Liberty Avenue in New York City. It was founded by the late Sybil Bernard, Cookie’s mother, who migrated to the United States many years ago in search of a better life for her young children, who she was forced to leave behind at first.
However, his involvement in the food industry materialized years early when his mother, Sybil Bernard, founded the first Sybil’s restaurant at Hillside, Queens. Cookie’s mother migrated to the United States many years ago in search of a better life for her young children, who she was forced to leave behind at first.
Cookie remembers that period of his life all too well, but he admits that it was situations like that, that helped to make him into the strong-willed human being he is, who settles for nothing but the best for his customers.
But his introduction into the food industry many years ago could be deemed unorthodox to say the least. Let’s rewind for a bit in order to help you gain a better understanding of how life unfolded for this remarkable self-made chef who couldn’t imagine his life taking any other path.
Born August 8, 1956 at the Georgetown Public Hospital to parents Viburt and Sybil Bernard, Cookie was named after his father [Viburt Bernard]. He recalled being doted upon by family members having been the first child born of his parents’ union. He might have been nicknamed Cookie, since he was an especially cute baby. Years later and the nickname remains and has been well associated with the food establishment – Sybil’s.
Cookie, during a recent interview, remembered spending a period of his childhood at Laing Avenue where his paternal grandparents, Clytie and Charles Bernard, owned a home. He remembers all too well his family having a modest lifestyle, but this became quite bleak when his parents decided to go their separate ways.
When it was just his mother manning the child-rearing ship, Cookie recalled that it certainly wasn’t an easy time for he and his eight other siblings [five boys and three girls] who his mother had moved to an especially modest domicile in Kitty, Georgetown.
It was there, he recalled, that his mother ended up leaving them when she saw no other way to continue to provide for them other than by travelling to greener pastures – the United States. But even before this big decision, Cookie recalled that his mother really tried to make ends meet.
“We moved from place to place before my mom ended up at Station Street, Kitty…it was a house m
y [maternal] grandfather, who came from India, had left for my mom. That was the main place that I called home back in Guyana. My mother tried to take care of us, but we knew she had to leave in order to pave the way for a better life for us; what mother would want to leave her kids?…what she did, she did for us,” Cookie assured.
Although he’d attended St Phillips School where he wrote the Common Entrance examination, Cookie was not given the opportunity to complete a secondary education in Guyana. In fact, he recalled that by the time his mother had migrated, one of her brothers, Neville Sue, decided to take custody of him [Cookie] and three of his brothers. The remaining children were shuttled off to be cared for by their paternal grandmother.
“I usually say we were rescued, because that’s what it was to me…” said Cookie, of being removed from the house his mother left he and his siblings in. But it wasn’t just a random move, since Cookie is convinced that it helped to shape him into a man with a passion for preparing good food.
You see, Cookie’s uncle Neville, although he was just about 25 years old at the time, had a food business in Linden, and in order to ensure that he and his brothers were kept occupied, inducted them into the business. At just 12 years old, Cookie had already started to master the art of baking good quality bread and pastries. In fact, he recalled learning a great
deal about cooking good food because, as he recalled, his uncle only hired the best in the industry.
A BUSINESS IDEA
However, by the time he was 14 years old, Cookie remembered his mother returned to Guyana with documents intact, and was heading to the United States Embassy to complete the needed paperwork to take them with her. Of course she only had enough finance to facilitate travel for Cookie and one of his brothers, with the hope that they would be able to work and help her accrue additional funds to enable the other siblings to travel later.
But upon his arrival in the United States, Cookie recalled that he was not permitted to have a full-time job and had to be enrolled into the school system. He did work part-time to help support his mother. However, nature would take its course, following a visit his mother made to Toronto to see her brother, Neville, who was at the time visiting from Guyana.
Cookie had accompanied his mother to Toronto and he recalled that friends who had heard that Neville was visiting, wanted him to prepare various Guyanese foods for them, which he did, and was distributing when he and his mother visited. Both Cookie and his mother observed the fascination of the several immigrant-Guyanese who were eager to partake in the foods they had enjoyed back in the day.
Seeing sheer excitement and satisfaction on the various faces from being blessed with the tantalizing tastes from their homeland, sparked an idea in Cookie’s mom. Maybe she could ensure that persons have direct access to a taste of home by doing just what her brother did, but on a more permanent basis.
Before long the idea for a restaurant was crystallised, and Cookie and his siblings were fully on board with their mother. This was a tactical move, since as Cookie recounted, his mother had recently found herself on the breadline. It was a desperate time for the family, and so venturing into such a business was certainly a good option.
“We came back to New York and we decided to give it a shot…we started working out of our own kitchen making pastries,” Cookie recalled. He remembers all too well how his cousin, Winston Shung, really helped to ensure that the business took off, by securing a market among his friends down in Brooklyn. But word soon started to spread about Sybil’s foods, which saw the demand skyrocketing.
In fact, Cookie vividly remembers the day – Friday, September 15, 1978 – that his mother formally opened Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant at 132-17 Liberty Avenue. “You name it, we offer it…” said Cookie of the business that has since expanded to multiple locations with plans for a few more currently taking shape. From curry and pepper pot to sorrel and mauby beverages, Sybil’s is perhaps the most inviting Guyanese/West Indian restaurant that has penetrated the United States food industry.
A HOUSEHOLD NAME
Since assuming control of the Sybil’s franchise, Cookie, with the continued support of his siblings, offspring, and more importantly dedicated staffers, has been doing nothing but justice to a business idea that his mother, who departed in the year 2000, brought to fruition many years ago.
Today Guyanese and West Indians from across the Caribbean, who migrated to the United States, have no bones waiting in line to sample some of the savoury foods and drinks reminiscent of what they had ready access to back in their homelands. “We have a number system and some people would come and stand in line for a long time just to buy from us. People don’t even get parking sometimes, but they do what they have to do to get our stuff,” said Cookie with pride.
He believes that customers have continued to support Sybil’s even years later because it has continued to offer the same quality foods and drinks which hold true to the recipes of yesteryear.
“We are still using the same old recipes, and I think that is what people love,” said Cookie, who noted that “even though people may have to pay a little extra for what we offer, we know and they know that they are getting their money’s worth, because it is only quality stuff we offer them…that is all we know…good quality.”
Currently the foods and beverages that helped to make Sybil’s a household name are also offered at locations in Fort Lauderdale, which is manned by Cookie’s brother Robert, and another at Hillside, Queens, which is managed by another brother, Ken. Another spinoff restaurant – Island Express – located in Brooklyn, is another family-oriented operation managed by one of Cookie’s sisters.
In recognition of the vegetarian needs of some customers, Cookie has also introduced a Vegetarian restaurant next door to the Liberty Avenue Sybil’s and, according to him, plans are on stream to introduce one in Brooklyn too. In fact, he disclosed that even customers in Canada can take advantage of the same quality foods he offers in the United States, when they visit Norman Sue’s Bakery and Restaurant in the neighbouring country.
When asked what kept him grounded in the food industry, Cookie quickly quipped, “Hard work keeps a business going; you have to have passion and the right people around you with similar passion. If you are just looking for the money it won’t last, you have to have the passion and love for the work, and that is what we have been doing over the years to keep the business going.”
He shared too the importance of maintaining quality which he and his staffers have learnt to maintain and improve on over the years.
Although this father of six is happy to have his children on board too, he confided, “I have gratitude for my staff who have been there for years…some 30, some 25 and 20 years…My children were raised by my staff providing this service we offer which helps us to proudly represent Guyana, and I am eternally grateful to them.”
For this reason, Cookie said he has been striving to be a good employer who ensures that his staff is well taken care of, so that they can continue to give their best in much the same way his mother did when she was alive and working for a cause she believed in entirely.
For remaining a son of the soil who continues to showcase the good quality foods that Guyana has to offer, even years after migrating, we at Kaieteur News today recognize Viburt ‘Cookie’ Bernard as our ‘Special Person’ of the week.
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