Lena’s Wood-fired Pizza & Tap is run by team members who feel like family to its owners. The Alexandria, Virginia-based pizzeria opened in 2017 and has kept its second-floor open by adding 4,000 square feet of themed dining.
Restaurants run best when they’re run by family. That’s the philosophy of Jason Yates, who along with his wife and son, own Lena’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap in Alexandria, Virginia. It’s named after Yates’ mother, Lena, who was an Italian raised by Italians. His mother always kept the house as a warm spot for Yates and his five brothers growing up. There was always a pot of red sauce simmering on the stove, and always an extra kid or two staying for supper.
“Building (the pizzeria) was a tribute to my mom,” Yates said, “and my memories I had growing up with her and my father and brothers.”
Amongst the popular dishes the Yates family had around were giant meatballs and a meatball pizza. The meatballs were large because the brothers always had friends over, and they boys were always hungry. “Instead of making small meatballs, she made one large meatball the size of four.”
Yates says he knows the neighborhood well — his family has owned several other businesses, including an iconic automotive repair shop since the 1960s and he wanted to build a gathering place. The family, Yates said, is very well known for its hospitality which comes from its team members.
“We really pride ourselves on having really good team members,” Yates said. “We have extremely long tenures with them — we’re talking 10 years or longer — and we really treat them like they’re family. You’re only as good as your people are, because they’re the ones on the front lines taking care of things. From our chef to our servers to our greeter — everybody’s important and we really emphasize a lot of training and a lot of family-type atmosphere with our team members.”
The restaurant opened in 2017 with 2,000 square feet inside and 1,000-square-foot patio outside. The Yates’ businesses are known for its great customer service, great products and always being open during harsh times like bad weather. Company management would pick up its team members by four-wheel drive to ensure the restaurant stayed open.
“People couldn’t drive, but they’d walk all down the streets an we would absolutely be inundated with a completely full restaurant and a completely full (heated) patio,” Yates said.
When the pandemic hit in 2020, it was all hands on deck. Lena’s was able to put a tent up behind its building, adding 4,000 square feet of dining and allowing customers to socially distance.
“It was called the Oasis. We were open when everyone else wasn’t,” Yates said, “and we could actually attract talent because everybody was shut down at the time.”
Lena’s served comfort food — Italian fare —– and carryout business boomed. They were able to keep the tent up for about two-and-a-half years before the city asked them to shut it down.
No worries, though. The restaurant had an extra empty 4,000 square feet on a second floor it wasn’t using. How did they manage to keep it full?
Each period, they gave the space a different experience every few months. For example, one time the Oasis was built out to resemble a winter ski lodge. Another was made to look like April in full bloom, and still third was made to look like Nantucket with an open theme. The most recent was the Velvet & Rye, a speakeasy-style tribute to the 1920s.
Each period lasts about three to three and a half months. It’s kept under wraps and built out in just four days. The Yates have the same menu, but they had specialty dishes to go along with the theme.
On the menu
Pizza is the company’s top seller and is baked in a 900-degree wood-fired oven. They use no gas. Pepperoni is the top seller, of course, and it’s made with a high-grade pepperoni. The dough is dipped in a high-grade pepperoni sauce they make.
It’s a thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pizza with a nice wood-fired char on it. Dough is baked using a mix of oak and walnut. Sauces are made in-house. It’s important to make as much in-house as possible to ensure continuity of the brand, Yates explained.
“We pride ourselves are really high-end, fresh ingredients,” Yates added. Aside from the pepperoni, the Diavola is a fan favorite and is topped with spicy soppressata salami, mozzarella, fried kale, calabrese pepper and hot honey.
When customers’ favorite pizzerias in the D.C./Philadelphia/Virginia area opened backup, many consumers chose to stick with Lena’s because the hospitality and food had been so good. “We really broadened our entire local areas out to the neighboring states,” Yates said.
The brand hasn’t been without its own challenges. Finding good people and then retaining them has been Lena’s biggest issue. Their second challenge has been keeping up with the escalating costs of products. For example, their takeout boxes have gone up four times.
“It’s really staying on top of your costs,” Yates said. “We run a P&L every month and we also run off a budget. I think it’s really important that people getting into the business or are in the business really need to have a budget, they need to look at their P&L and see if they’re on budget or where they’re getting off so they can fix it quickly before you get six months into it.”
Mandy Wolf Detwiler is the managing editor at Networld Media Group and the site editor for PizzaMarketplace.com and QSRweb.com. She has more than 20 years’ experience covering food, people and places.
An award-winning print journalist, Mandy brings more than 20 years’ experience to Networld Media Group. She has spent nearly two decades covering the pizza industry, from independent pizzerias to multi-unit chains and every size business in between. Mandy has been featured on the Food Network and has won numerous awards for her coverage of the restaurant industry. She has an insatiable appetite for learning, and can tell you where to find the best slices in the country after spending 15 years traveling and eating pizza for a living.