Ken Bernard, 43, came to New York City from Guyana when he was five. A father of three girls, he runs Sybil’s Bakery and Restaurant in Jamaica, established by his late mother in 1978. Sybil’s is the most well-known Guyanese restaurant in New York with additional locations in Forest Hills and Prospect Park South.
How do you hold up working seven days a week?
It’s dedication. You’re not going to make it if you’re not dedicated in this kind of business. I watch a lot of the chef shows now. It’s a learning experience just watching them because they’re looking for perfection in food. Food is an 18-hour job.
How did Sybil’s come to be?
My mom, she was nine of us with her alone. She got laid off — she was a mold cutter of jewelry. My older brother, he knew some Guyanese people and they had a big family and we started delivering to them from our house, in Far Rockaway. And then maybe a year after she rented a place, and took off from there. I guess it’s a blessing.
How many other Guyanese restaurants are there in New York City?
Now? Oh, dime a dozen. We remain No. 1. Everyone knows Sybil’s. You go to England and ask Guyanese, ‘You know Sybil’s?’ They’ll say, ‘Yeah!’”
How important is food to the Guyanese culture?
My mother, she’s East Indian. Her father was from India. Even in India, the poorest homes you go to, the first thing you go in, they offer you something to eat. And that has traveled here. When I go to people’s homes they’re like, “Come on, eat, eat!”
Are most of your customers Guyanese?
Most. But we have all nations coming here at this point. We cater to everyone. It’s rapidly changing though, this community is. First it was Greek, and Puerto Ricans. Then the Guyanese took over. Now it’s more changing to the Muslims from the Middle East and the Hispanics, Mexicans, Guatemala. I see the Guyanese community going more toward Richmond Hill.
What do you think the Guyanese population is shifting to Richmond Hill?
To me it’s like nightclubbing — if that’s the hot spot at the time, everyone’s going to go with it.
What else has been going on with the Guyanese community?
A lot of Guyanese from here have been getting deported, for a lot of different reasons. When you get arrested here now a few times and you serve some time if you’re not a citizen, you get deported. That’s the law now. Could be anything. Your time is up.
Why do you think Guyanese have done as well as they have in New York?
Always comes back from the roots — from not having. I just want to make sure that my girls get their education. Because I didn’t get a chance to do mine. From not having, you’re climbing a mountain — slow. Might not be this generation, but the next one will be a little stronger.