Heather Lesher, the opening general manager of Pizzeria Beddia, was gifted a wine key for Secret Santa some months after opening on March 21, 2019, with “Pizza Queen” etched onto the body by then-sous chef Alex Valletta. It was an appropriate gift for the restaurant’s wine buyer — who also happened to be head of HR, sorter of schedules, financial advisor, and superintendent of all front-of-house operations.
With Pizzeria Beddia’s one-year anniversary falling days after the COVID-19 shutdown in Philadelphia, Heather ushered a new business through a time when every restaurant was struggling to stay afloat. With the laundry list of responsibilities that comprised her position, Lesher’s experience is essential to the continued success of the restaurant. She left the position last fall to pursue other hospitality opportunities in upstate New York. But before she ships off to the Catskills, Eater sat down with her to get specific about general managing: from daily operational tasks to the pesky Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, and what it takes to lead a team through a pandemic.
Eater: What was the most challenging part of being the opening general manager and opening a restaurant?
Heather Lesher: I came on board one month before we opened and there was so much to do. Greg [Root] and Al [Lucas of Defined Hospitality] have opened so many places that they have a good structure for what that looks like, but there were still a lot of unknowns. Joe [Beddia] definitely wanted to do natural wine but there were some hesitations about that just because that wasn’t something Greg and Al had experience with. There was a little hesitancy of “Can this work financially?” and Joe’s philosophy of wanting to price wine not at a traditional markup but at a price point that he would feel comfortable spending on certain bottles. I think that was the most challenging part.
Also, we hired a team of hosts to open. They sat through training and then opening day, they didn’t show up. That was certainly a curveball last minute. But we made it work and it ended up being a kismet good thing. The first two weeks I ran the door and I had John Walker by my side, which I think was really refreshing to people who had been to the old pizzeria and knew his face.
What is one of the best things about being a general manager?
I think particularly as it pertains to opening a restaurant, the ability to set the tone and have your own input into how things should be run. Also, the fun stuff like picking out wines and picking out the music vibe and the tone of the service experience.
What’s one thing that the average person going to the pizzeria wouldn’t know about your job?
This was something that shocked a lot of people that I would talk to — I’d tell them that I come in at 11 a.m. and stay until 11 p.m. and they’re like, “But what do you do during all that time?” and it’s like, well there’s service but there’s also a whole business side of things from human resources and recruiting, and thinking about the team and the service, to also planning the financial aspects and chasing vendors down to make deliveries and receive deliveries and organizing schedules. Kind of all the behind-the-scenes stuff that doesn’t get coverage on cooking competition shows or the glamorous chef side of things. All of those things are necessary to having a successful operation.
Do you have an overarching lesson you’ve learned in this position?
I feel like every three months I learned something about what makes people tick and how to build a team that is successful. I would also say that when I started I had a pretty big case of imposter syndrome from working in restaurants where there maybe was an ego at the helm or a place where my ideas or feedback or concerns were not taken seriously. I would give a lot of credit to Joe and Greg and Al and Nick [Kennedy] for making me feel seen and heard — and not only that but recognizing where my contributions had value and empowering me to feel like I could come to them with more progressive thoughts without fear of rejection or shame. I think that was a big takeaway: confidence in my own skill sets and then the development of skill sets I didn’t even know I needed to have as far as understanding and leading people.
What is an accomplishment as a team and a team leader that you’re most proud of?
Certainly the first year there was a lot of press craze making the Philly Mag Best New Restaurant and the Esquire Best New Restaurants in America. That was definitely a big moment of pride. But even more than that, surviving the pandemic and being recognized by our guests for providing a place that felt safe; I feel like we came out of the pandemic with a stronger team. The first year there was a lot of joy and in the second year there was still that joy but with less bullshit. I’m really grateful for the people that were a part of that.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice on opening night, what would you say?
I would say build your routine now so that you’re coming here prepared to kick ass every day and don’t let the little things fluster you. There are going to be a lot of challenging days ahead and this little thing right now doesn’t matter in the big scheme.
I have some reflections on what I’ve learned about Philly because I lived here for only a couple of months prior to working at Beddia. I think one of the most impressive things to me about this city is just how incredibly unique and tight-knit the food scene is. There is undeniable talent and an incredibly supportive environment where everyone knows each other and supports each other and celebrates each other’s accomplishments and that is not something that you find everywhere. Also, the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board can suck a dick.
Do you wanna talk more about the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board?
Just having the perspective of living in other places, I think the PLCB as it exists right now definitely limits what can be done in food and beverage in this town. I think there are smarter ways to go about generating the revenue that the state needs while still supporting small businesses. I’m grateful for people like Jason Malumed from MFW Wine Co. who had the guts to sue the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and enact things like direct delivery, which the PLCB was supposed to do in 2014. The whole pricing structure and having to pick up at the state store is a waste of time for people that are running a business and it’s a big money suck. It puts limits on products that we can access due to the bureaucracy that those vendors and companies have to go through to get their products into the state.
Any other big takeaways from your time at Beddia?
Something I learned about life is that you shouldn’t eat pizza every day but having a slice of joy once a week is a great thing. The host and the dishwasher are two of the most crucial roles in the restaurant. We need restaurants for a healthy functioning society. We all know how much we missed restaurants during the shutdowns and how much we need those spaces to celebrate and mourn and just be together. I think there is a big discrepancy of understanding from the general public of what it costs to accomplish that and to create spaces that are well-designed and have good leadership and talent behind them. There is a disconnect between that for a lot of consumers and I think if there was a greater understanding of that, those places could be even more celebrated.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.