“I’ve always loved being a waitress,” declared Lea Fridrich. “Some people find it demeaning, but I love to feed people. I also find everybody interesting.” When she was waiting tables at Sweet Sue’s in Phoenicia, Sunfrost in Bearsville, or Oriole9 in Woodstock, customers often assumed Lea was the owner of the restaurant. She knew everyone’s name, who their family was, and what they liked to eat, yet she managed to serve food efficiently in the midst of chatting and catching up.
As of May 16, the waitress, known by many as a heart and soul of the local restaurant business, now is a proprietress herself. The managing partner of the Garden Café, she is maintaining the vegan ideals of the restaurant on Woodstock’s Village Green, while adding new touches, such as the recently constructed juice bar, and tweaking the menu with sophisticated new dishes.
The work is in her blood. Her parents owned a restaurant, and she officially became a waitress when she was 16 at the Garden of Eating in Queens. That was 30 years ago, and she’s been learning on the job ever since. The food service legacy is being passed on to her nine-year-old daughter, True, who was often seen busing tables at Oriole9 and is diligently working by her mother’s side this summer.
“True used to consider herself an artist who wanted to be a ninja,” said Lea. “Now when people ask what she wants to be when she grows up, she says, ‘Mom.’”
The Garden Café was established in 2007 by Pam Brown, who built a thriving business in the center of town. When Brown was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, she kept working full-time, but she also started looking around for a new owner who would maintain the integrity of her vegan offerings. “I was worried what was going to happen to the restaurant, which is so important to Woodstock,” recalled Lea. “Pam and I talked for a year, but nothing happened until Julie Price came into the picture.”
Price, a Texan who lives in New York City and Willow and is retired from the fashion industry, had met Lea at Sweet Sue’s and followed her from place to place. “In March, she said to me, ‘I have a gut feeling I’m supposed to do something for you,’” explained Lea. “Six weeks later, it was happening.” Price became the investing angel, with Lea as the operating partner.
In her eleventh year of working at Sweet Sue’s, Lea was gearing up to buy the popular Phoenicia eatery, now closed but then famous for its pancakes, as well as its savory breakfast and lunch menu. However, she had a falling out with owner Sue Taylor, and Lea was fired. She now recognizes the delay as essential to her preparation for running a restaurant.
She worked for four years at Sunfrost, the thriving fruit-and-vegetable stand in the Bearsville flats with an attached juice bar and café. “That’s where I learned juicing,” noted Lea, who then went to Oriole9 for a year, learning a whole new style of technology and management from owners Pierre-Luc Moeys and Nina Paturel. Meanwhile, customers kept telling her she should have her own place.
As she searched for an investor, Lea said, “I prayed a lot. I thought of going back to the city or approaching Sue again. Investors came along but didn’t work out. Finally I stopped trying to bully God, and I let go.” A devout Catholic, Lea applies her faith to serving the public. “It’s about being loving and never being judgmental. I pray for guests and the people I work with.”
The Oliverea resident has been a vegetarian for three decades and makes healthy food a priority. When she first took over the Garden Café, she started tinkering with the menu, keeping all her favorite dishes and discarding others. Then she started asking customers what they were missing, and she put their favorites back on the menu. Now she’s developing weekly specials, based on the organic produce available at the Wednesday farmer’s market down the street. “I try to buy from small vendors and put it back into the community,” Lea noted. “We’ve added raw desserts and the juice bar. The energy is still great. The food is delicious, and when you walk out, you don’t feel heavy.”
The black bean burgers are still available, as are the Garden Bowls (protein choice, grain, and sauteed greens). New dishes include the red lentil vegetable enchilada with tomato-coconut sauce and curried apple salad. In addition to organic fresh-squeezed vegetable juices, the juice bar serves smoothies with names like Banana Latte and Vivacious Violet, using soy or coconut milk. A popular dessert is the raw blueberry cheesecake. Stylish drinks include the sake bloody Mary and a summer sangria.
Lea has discovered an unrecognized gem already in the kitchen — Christine Moss, who is now the kitchen manager. “She’s got all this creative energy, and she puts all this love into the food,” said Lea. “I also depend on Kyla DeLisio for hospitality, and as a server and juice bar expert.”
Former owner Brown is doing well, spending a lot of time gardening. Lea hopes to entice her into leading cooking classes at the café in the fall and winter. “I want to have pop-up dinners, workshops with specialty guest chefs, foragers, nutritionists, people who work locally with farming or herbs. It’s my new home, so I have to start inviting people over!”++
The Garden Café is located at 6 Old Forge Road, on the Woodstock green. It’s open for lunch and dinner, six days a week. Closed Tuesday.