Meet Your Neighborhood Pizzeria | Q&A with Laura Ambrose of Woodstock’s Pizza & Backyard
Since 2001, Jeff and Laura Ambrose have owned the San Luis Obispo Woodstock’s, along with the other California restaurants. Much has changed in the nearly 20 years of ownership and even more since Jeff originally started working for Chuck Woodstock back in 1980. Woodstock’s now has eight locations on the West Coast and the SLO location recently underwent a major renovation. We sat down with co-owner Laura Ambrose to learn more about what makes Woodstock’s the #1 independent pizzeria in the nation, donating hundreds of pizzas to recent fire victims and how they’ve adapted during this challenging time. We even tried to get her to tell us what’s in their secret sauce, but her lips were sealed.
The San Luis Obispo location was the second Woodstock’s restaurant to be built back in 1980. How has the shop changed since then?
So many ways! We remodeled the restaurant twice before we ultimately decided in 2017 to expand into space next door, which doubled the amount of restaurant space for us. The original decor was gray and mauve — very “in” for the 80’s, and pretty “out” by the 90’s. We’ve gone from a few taps of very standard beer to two bars with 24 taps and additional bottled and canned beverage options. We now have a state-of-the-art kitchen that can produce custom pizzas, sides and salads quickly and efficiently. And we have a two-sided fireplace with theatre seating!
Woodstock’s has built its brand around college towns — what is the thinking behind this?
We have done this since the beginning, when Chuck Woodstock built his first restaurant near Oregon State. It has worked really well for us, at least until COVID shut down most of the universities. The university brings a lot of youthful energy to a town, and the jobs created by the university are an economic engine that we thought would never go away. College students are great employees because they want flexible hours, they’re smart, they’re fun and they are great ambassadors for the brand. The downside is that our employees don’t stick around that long, but that keeps us on our toes because we know we have to have great training programs and incentives to keep the job interesting.
So what sets San Luis Obispo apart?
We love SLO! It’s the perfect blend of small town and large university presence. It has created a synergistic, collaborative environment that benefits all businesses here. The kids at Cal Poly and Cuesta are great — smart, balanced, focused on excelling, energetic, funny, creative. We love being part of downtown SLO and seeing the wonderful mix of locals, students and tourists.
What are some of the modifications you’ve made at the restaurant in response to COVID?
First, we did a lot of measuring and rearranging in the restaurant to ensure that all seating was at least six feet separated. We created a new sanitization protocol with visuals to train our team members, added new signage and implemented new health and safety procedures for making and delivering food among many other changes to follow the guidelines. We also received permission from the ABC to start delivering alcoholic beverages, which we hope to continue. All of this required a monumental shift in our marketing efforts to inform the public on all of the steps we are taking to ensure their safety.
Then, of course, we had to move everything outside, so we are now serving guests on the sidewalk and in the street parking in front of our restaurant. We brought in outdoor furniture and umbrellas and most recently added heaters as well. The city officials have been outstanding in their efforts to help us pivot to outside, including the funding to build our parklet as part of the Open SLO Program. We are extremely grateful for the city’s efforts to help us survive and even thrive. We have worked with an excellent local team to design, build and illuminate our parklet.
What makes Woodstock’s pizza so delicious?
Is it the secret sauce? The foldover crust? The custom pizza creations? The awesome people who work for us? The fun environment? The place to get your late-night munchies? The place that brings back awesome memories for alumni? Pint night? Trivia night? The mix of students, families, singles and visitors? Is it not taking ourselves too seriously? We think it’s a combination of most of these things. We also have an amazing team working behind the scenes that keeps the place humming with technology, accounting systems, marketing and operations. We hope it looks simple and uncomplicated to our guests, but there’s a lot to running a successful business.
What are some of the things you and Jeff are most proud of since taking over the business in 2001?
On the one hand we’re very conscientious about not changing things much from Chuck Woodstock’s original vision. Jeff began working for Chuck in 1980, and we still adhere to most of Chuck’s standards for our pizzas. But the pizza industry has changed a lot since 1980, and we think it’s important to gauge the needs of our customers and adapt. We have remodeled all of our restaurants since we took over (some more than others) and have a much more robust beverage program. We do an amazing volume of food out of our restaurants, which is how we earned first place nationally in sales volume among independent pizzerias. We have done a lot to support the community and university, donating thousands of dollars of food each year and sponsoring many worthwhile organizations. Most recently, we have donated hundreds of pizzas to victims of the CZU Complex fires.
What a great way to step up and support fire victims right now. Woodstock’s also donates to organizations year round as well, why give?
We have an acronym we live by at Woodstock’s — FUELS. It stands for Fun, Uniqueness, Excellence, Loyalty and Service. We believe loyalty is earned by supporting local organizations and worthy causes. Overall, we want to have an attitude of generosity. We have been blessed with a great team, great communities, great customers and a successful bottom line. Giving back is important, and it’s definitely part of our DNA.
One last question… In your words, why should our community support local?
I think I speak for most of our fellow restaurateurs in saying that we are trying really hard to provide a safe environment, with safe food. Our focus is still on providing a great experience to our guests, and now with enhanced safety standards. We have worked hard to maintain jobs for all of our employees, and now are actually hiring additional help. We recognize that this relationship is symbiotic — we need you, and hopefully you need us as well.