How does a waitress—that is, a great waitress—become the proprietor of a restaurant? For Lea Fridrich, who took over the vegan Garden Café in Woodstock, New York, in 2015, the process involved hard work and the ability to turn to the community around her for support. Her now 10-year-old daughter, True, also played an important role and spends weekends and holidays working in the café, joyfully investing in her own future.
Many of the people who have been key to Lea’s success are women. “It wasn’t intentional,” said Lea. “It just worked out that way.” For several years of restaurant-shopping, she met with potential investors—all men. Then she was approached by Julie Price, a long-time customer who is retired from the fashion industry. “Julie is the angel,” said Lea, “the financial backer who looked at the business plan (on paper it was a joke) but had the gut feeling this was the right thing to do.”
As Lea contemplated making the leap, she turned to Kylla DeLisio, a young waitress she had worked closely with for four years. “Kylla is beyond a server, beautiful and kind,” said Lea. “I told her, ‘I want to do this. Are you in?’ I knew I couldn’t do it without her. She said yes.” Kylla became one of the leaders of the waitstaff at Garden Café.
Throughout the process, with supporters coming on board one by one, Lea kept her daughter informed of the progress or lack of it. “We both kept talking and praying about it. All the people who work here are now True’s extended family—they can bicker, cry and laugh with her.”
Even the café’s original founder, Pam Brown, was part of the collaborative process. Lea, a vegetarian, is dedicated to maintaining Pam’s vegan ideals and inherited many of her recipes. While Pam’s staff was still running the kitchen, Lea walked in and noticed a gorgeous Caribbean woman chopping cabbage. A strong intuition kicked in. “I said, ‘You’re the one. Can you be the head chef?’ That was Christine Moss. She blossomed. She’s back there giggling, dancing, doing her magic. Everyone in the kitchen respects her, and she gets the job done—but she’s kind.”
Part of Lea’s job is to make sure her business itself operates as a village, with harmony and compassion. “The second I feel sourness, a bad apple, I immediately address it,” she said. “I find out, is this a funk you’re in, or is it who you are and I didn’t detect before? When customers come here, they feel welcome, and they feel loved.” A devout Catholic, Lea is careful to select employees who have “some sort of faith belief, their own way of being connected to the spirit. I also want them to feel appreciated—they don’t work for us, they work with us. If we can’t make them feel good and at home and part of this, we’ll never grow.”
Lea began running the Garden Café in the spring of 2015, tinkering with the menu and adding a juice bar with healthy recipes. By fall, the adjacent storefront was vacant, and she took it over, using the opportunity to redo the interior. Another community member, designer Myoshin Thurman, listened to what Lea wanted: “To feel joy, like I’m in the clouds, gray and silver clouds, blue sky. I like angels, the moon, the stars, God. She incorporated all that.” The striking new décor is white and silvery gray, with simple block tables, plenty of air between them, and streaming light from the windows. The ambiance is, in fact, heavenly.
On weekends and vacations, True works the front of the house, seating people, bringing out water. “She’ll be the future manager-owner for sure,” said Lea. “She’s very direct, and she sees everything. I’ll make a wishy-washy suggestion to the staff about the placement of salt and pepper shakers, but True will say, ‘We like them right here, at the edge of the table.’ She also makes juices and cappuccinos—everyone likes her version the best.”
The encouragement of loyal customers has been key to Lea’s success. “That cheerleading team for all these years kept me on the path and focused. I was scared to death. I get stuck in places because I want security, to make sure I can pay my bills on time. Everyone else believed in me and helped me believe in myself. Now people walk through the door, and they’re thrilled for me. They know it’s something they helped make happen.”
The closeness of those relationships sometimes makes it hard for her to charge for the food, but the community would not be a village if it didn’t take care of her, too. “I would love to just give people what they want,” Lea sighed. “I would pick up everyone’s check, but that defeats the purpose of being a successful business. I have to know the quality of the business, and if I can’t charge what it’s worth, I can’t pay people or support my family. My naturopath said, ‘Don’t forget you need to charge! You’re giving them a piece of you.’ It’s always hard to charge the full amount, but I’m respecting that it’s okay.”
Soon after the second room had been added onto the café, True wrote a letter in the notebook set out for guests’ comments. It said, in part, “Mom, I love you sooooooo much, just look around, we did it! Time flies so fast, we were just thinking about if we should buy the first place, and POOF! Here it is, and now we have it. And now we have the second place. Mom we did it!!! This is our dream! Love, Trueby Duby”
As Lea’s openness to the community helped her create a successful business, its legacy for the next generation is already being handed down. Now that’s a village.