By Matt Ward / Photography by Rachel Smith
The blue cheese in its little clear plastic container, sitting next to the celery spears on a plate of wings, does not seem special. It looks like the blue cheese on a thousand tables at a thousand restaurants. But taste it. It is not the same as all those other blue cheeses.
It is different; it is better.
“Did you see how chunky that was?” asks James “Jamie” Beall, COO and president of Ledo Pizza. “You don’t want to be able to take your fork and pick up the blue cheese and have nothing left on your fork.”
It is the start of a weekday lunch hour at the Crownsville Ledo, and Beall has ordered a plate of wings and a medium pizza, half pepperoni, half Hawaiian. Beall may or may not actually be hungry — he doesn’t say. Dissecting a piece of pizza with his fork and knife, he observes the cook on the cheese, the quality of the dough. He knows just from the sound of the crust when the pizza is cut whether it’s perfect.
“It was a good pizza; it wasn’t a 10,” Beall says of today’s sample. “If anything, I would probably change the time to add 45 seconds, maybe a minute longer. You get a little bit of blister on top of the cheese and a little bit more golden brown on the side of the crust.”
Jamie Beall and his brother Rob Beall, who serves as Ledo’s CEO, were born into a restaurant family and grew up in the kitchen.
Ledo is famous for its square pizza (more on that later). But other items on the menu stand out, too.
Take the wings, for instance: most places, you get 12 to 14 to the pound; at Ledo, you get just six or seven. “It’s done for a reason,” Jamie Beall explains. “Everybody wants a crispy wing, but people don’t want a dry wing. We use a larger chicken wing, so then we can crisp the skin without drying it out.”
The margin for error on overcooking a tiny chicken wing is thin. Use a larger wing and you can fry it harder; there’s a greater chance of cooking it just right. This is the kind of thing that Ledo Pizza, as a franchise, does well. It’s about attention to detail, and a quality product that, within the Ledo system, is easy to reproduce. It would be easier for the marketing department, Beall says, if they just put as many wings on the plate for as low a cost as possible. But Ledo Pizza plays more of a long game, with everything from its marketing approach to the flow of food through its expo windows, to the laminate on its recipe cards, to the size of its chicken wings, to the quality of its blue cheese.
“I could save $100,000 a year on blue cheese,” Jamie Beall says. That’s $100,000 for a condiment the customer ostensibly does not even pay for. And the blue cheese is in fact tasty, thick and chunky; you’d have to travel way up the restaurant food chain — to someplace where the waiters wear crisp white shirts, and know the wine list by heart — to find its comparison.
Roots in the region
Robert L. Beall, Rob and Jamie’s grandfather, opened the original Ledo Pizza in Adelphi, MD, in 1955 (it has since moved to College Park and is no longer connected to the main Ledo Pizza operation, though it still serves official Ledo pizza). Robert M. Beall, their father, started franchising Ledo Pizza in 1989, and the business has grown by a few locations a year ever since. Rob and Jamie, in more recent years, have taken the reins of the longstanding family brand.
“I feel huge, lasting and pervasive responsibility to Ledo,” says Rob Beall. “It’s more than any one of us, any franchisee, and more than our family. It’s responsible for the welfare of thousands; the goodwill we embody took more than half a century to build. It is the legacy of many and the future lifeblood of generations to come.”
Today Ledo Pizza has 99 locations, two licensees, and employs about 3,000 people. There are no corporate-owned stores, only franchises. The bulk of the restaurants are located in the Baltimore-Washington region. The outliers include locations in Tampa, FL; Rock Hill, SC (near Charlotte); Lynchburg, Richmond and Chincoteague, VA; and Ocean City, Salisbury and McHenry (near Deep Creek Lake), MD.
The Bealls have taken a family business into franchise mode, but they haven’t just expanded the brand name — they’ve actually made dozens of copies of their complete concept of what a family pizza and subs restaurant should be. The customer base for the original restaurant came from the University of Maryland, DeMatha Catholic High School and the local Lions Club. Ledo founder Robert L. Beall was friends with a lot of Washington Senators baseball players, and the likes of Tex Clevenger, Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio dined at Ledo. Today, the company’s marketing plan often favors long-term community relations over big plays in traditional advertising.
At the corporate level, Ledo Pizza sees itself as a slow-growth company. The pizza is the same as it has always been and the culture, though it’s taken a lot of thought and work over the years to replicate it over and over again, is the same as it has always been.
“Part of our thing is, we don’t change,” Jamie Beall says.
Rob Beall was home from college in 1989 when his father asked him to help work on what would become the Ledo model. “My first task was to write an operations manual,” he says. “Well, as a liberal arts graduate of economics and philosophy, the first thing I thought was a philosophy. So I wrote the Philosophy of Ledo. We started with a definition of Ledo that included great pizza, family, quality, made fresh, accommodating, large portions. From this definition, we derived all things important to our brand. This was how I wrote the manual and how we taught our Ledo family the things that were most important to us.”
That brand strategy also extends to the effort Ledo’s leadership puts into its relationships with the franchisees.
“They’re a very loyal family, and I like that about the whole concept,” says Jason Smith, owner of the Ellicott City Ledo. There were times, Smith says, during the most recent recession, where he was behind on his royalty payments. A bigger, less forgiving corporate parent might have shut him down, but Ledo stayed with him, and now his location is doing so well, he’s about to open a second. And, Smith, who started at Ledo as a teenager and worked his way up to owner, is paying it forward: Two of his longtime managers from the Ellicott City location will be part-owners in the new Elkridge store.
“So they can do better for themselves, and hopefully one day, they’ll do something similar for their employees,” Smith says.
Lamin Cham, owner of the Cheverly franchise, started as a dishwasher with Ledo in 1995. In his early 20s at the time, Cham had just arrived in America alone, having left his native country, The Gambia, because of unsafe living conditions there (the tiny country on the northwest coast of Africa had experienced a military coup the year before). Cham worked his way up to line cook, then assistant manager, then general manager. Now, with his own franchise, he has brought his two brothers in to work with him, and he has a wife and two young children at home.
Asked if he knew early on in his Ledo career that he wanted to stay with the company and to one day own a franchise, Cham replied, “Oh yes, because they treated me as a family.” When he first arrived in America, he had never seen pizza or subs, but says he took to them quickly.
For years, he saved money, little by little, and in late 2014, he opened his own franchise. “I knew in my heart that this was what I wanted to do,” Cham says.
Growing the family
Ledo’s franchise model, like the pizza itself, is built on the original blueprint for Ledo Pizza: a family restaurant with strong ties to the community, serving fresh-made food. In order to build relationships and replicate the family aspect of the business, Jamie Beall estimates that he spends about 100 hours with each prospective owner before he gives the green light to a new franchise.
“Franchising is a lot like being married,” he says, noting that it’s a relationship that you enter into with the intent of sticking with it. The lengthy vetting process pays off, Beall says, in his franchisees’ staying power. “We lose very few units,” he says. “We talk through problems.”
With no corporate-owned stores to tend to, the Bealls have the time and energy to mentor new owners, and to be extremely hands-on with the opening of each store. This includes site selection, real estate agreements, architecture, design, even putting the first food order away in the refrigerator and helping run the store for the first few weeks. Beall’s team also dictates what’s on the menu, how each item is cooked, and which food suppliers the owners use.
Ledo corporate does not make its money from the initial franchise fee. The return on the investment, Beall notes, comes in the form of royalty payments from the franchise to the corporate operation, and the break-even point on the investment does not typically happen until the location has been open for a few years.
The downside to all this, from a franchising perspective, is that it’s not conducive to fast growth. “To get big and aggressive, you need to be less heartfelt, not be friends,” Jamie Beall says. At 42, he’s been a student of the restaurant business most of his life. He has an idea of the profit margins, the potential efficiencies, the demographics of every market in the region. He knows the competition. And he knows what Ledo Pizza is; he knows its identity. It’s why he spends that extra $100,000 on blue cheese, and its why he chooses to be the sort of executive who seeks profit while still finding the time to act as a friend and mentor to his owners.
As a company that takes a long view, Ledo Pizza has more than once benefited from downturns in the economy. When recession hits, commercial real estate becomes cheaper, and used restaurant equipment suddenly becomes available. And so, the early 1990s and the late 2000s were growth periods at Ledo.
Today, Ledo is reaching a saturation point in the Baltimore-Washington region. With many of the franchise owners wanting to expand their business, the Bealls scouted for other opportunities and ended up investing in Urban Bar-B-Que. They have already expanded on its original five locations, adding a ninth early this year.
“The growth strategy has not changed since day one,” says Rob Beall. “A great product with great people will bring great things. Yes, we’ve expanded into Urban Bar-B-Que, but it doesn’t change the strategy to find great people with whom to become successful.”
Lessons in leadership
As managers, most people fall into one of three categories, says Jamie Beall: the coach, the drill sergeant or the parent. The coach favors encouragement, and the drill sergeant favors discipline and order. The parent is sort of a combination of the two. Beall says it does not matter to him which style an owner deploys.
“We have to have somebody who can manage people,” he says. As part of the training process for prospective franchisees, Beall puts each recruit to work with several different current Ledo owners. He makes sure to pair the recruit with someone whose style differs from his or her own; then, at the end of the training period, he puts the recruit with someone who shares the same management style.
“You can’t tell somebody how to manage people,” Beall says. “You can bend them a little bit, but their personalities are their personalities. The guy driving the bus has got his hands on the wheel, and it’s always going to turn the way he wants to turn the wheel. We set the expectations of what we want that pizza to look like, how fast we want it to come out, what we want it to taste like. We set the standard as far as how you treat people, but as far as how to motivate them, it’s different for everybody.”
There are other standards, too. Metrics, you might call them. During a tour of the Crownsville location, Beall rattles them off: The phone should never ring more than three times; the server should be at the table in 30 seconds, a drink at the table less than a minute later; the customer should be able to order within five minutes, be eating within 12, and be out the door within 27. Lunch is maybe a little quicker, dinner maybe a little slower. The corporate office watches these times, and, more important, they watch the credit card tips. Happy customers, after all, tip well.
“I always want to see somebody smiling,” Jamie Beall says of his front-of-house staff. “Most people smile naturally when they’re engaged with people, unless they’re too busy, too stressed. It’s not that the person doesn’t feel like being there.”
This is the sort of restaurant management wisdom that comes with experience; that a lack of pure joy in one’s staff is not likely due to forces within a particular staff member, but rather to operational imbalance. It is hard to answer the phone, wait on a customer in person, converse with the kitchen staff, and smile at the same time.
Making memories that last
Jamie Beall shows off a party room at the Millersville location, which can be closed off with French double doors. Pizza is an inexpensive option when you’re looking to feed a youth soccer or baseball team, and the party room doesn’t make as much money per square foot as the rest of the restaurant, he says.
But he didn’t build the room strictly for profit. Instead, he built it as a marketing tool. He wants young people in the community to have memorable experiences at Ledo Pizza, with their friends and families, so they’ll return one day with their own children.
The restaurant already has fourth-generation customers, and the Bealls want to build on that.
And that is a long play if ever there was one.
Matt Ward is a freelance writer based in Baltimore, MD. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
OF LEG WORK
Jamie Beall, COO and president of Ledo Pizza, started working at the family’s second restaurant, the Fireside Beefhouse in Greenbelt, MD (opened in 1959, sold in 1998) when he was 12. By the time he was 15, he was putting in regular shifts. At 18, he was an assistant manager, opening or closing the restaurant a few days a week.
“I waited tables only briefly,” Beall says. “I didn’t like the front of the house. I gravitated more towards the kitchen.” Beall says he liked the fast pace of kitchen work as well as the freedom to banter and cut jokes during slow parts of the day.
One of his kitchen mentors was a cook who people often said was lazy or slow-moving. “But when he goes to the refrigerator, he grabs six steaks. The other guys go to the refrigerator six times — he’s just smarter than they are,” Beall says. “You definitely try to do that, to get the whole kitchen to run that way.”
When the Ledo Pizza franchising business started up — operating at first out of a house behind the original restaurant — Beall got a taste of another kind of business: commercial real estate. Today he is the company’s in-house expert. He studies the market and scouts locations at length before making a move. He’s in the habit — has been, for years — of parking at a shopping center, office park or town center and just watching the people come and go. He matches that customer research not just with the Ledo business plan, but with his potential owners. Certain personalities, he says, will work really well in a business park with a busy, no-nonsense lunch crowd. It might take a totally different personality to thrive in a location that’s dependent on strong ties to athletic groups, schools and churches.
THE COST OF CUTTING CORNERS
All good pizza comes with a slogan, and Ledo has one of the best ones out there: “We don’t cut corners.” Ledo Pizza is square, not round (the 8-inch small pizza is literally square, while the medium and large pies are actually rectangular). That’s because the restaurant predates the ubiquity of pizzerias. Round pans were an expensive oddity in the 1950s, while square and rectangular pans were common and easily had. Ledo stuck with it, and the shape became an identity.
A large, round pizza from a national pizza chain costs $10. A large, rectangular pizza from Ledo costs the same, but delivers more actual pizza. The company’s “Pizza Party Calculator” does the math for you: One Ledo large serves four people, while a large from one of the major chains (Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, etc.) serves about two. For bigger parties, the economy becomes even more compelling: For 20 people, you could serve five Ledo pizzas or, at the same cost per pizza, nine round pizzas. For 50 people, the ratio becomes 13 (Ledo) to 21 (other guys).
While the organic and healthy food movement has gone mainstream in recent years, Ledo has been using fresh ingredients all along. “It’s something we’ve always done,” says Jamie Beall, COO and president of Ledo Pizza. At Ledo, they grind their own cheese, make their own sauce and make their own dough. Ledo uses a different yeast than most pizza places, and its pastry-like dough has a shelf life of just two hours; after that, if it hasn’t been cooked, it’s thrown out.
What are your first memories of being in the restaurant, and of eating Ledo pizza?
Rob Beall: I remember one time when my grandfather took me to Ledo after a University of Maryland football game. With our original store being so close to the University of Maryland, we were and continue to be very much a part of that community. Funny enough, my first memory of eating Ledo pizza was standing in front of a refrigerator as a little kid sneaking cold pizza leftovers. Yum.
As CEO, what are your core duties at Ledo?
RB: My duties have changed over the years. It started out as leading the team with openings, spending time with new franchisees, ensuring our product was consistently good across our stores. Today, I still do all that, but am happy to say we have a dedicated team of employees in charge of each of those areas. I spend most of my time working with them to make sure they are prepared for their roles and supported in what they do every day.
What about your work at Ledo throughout the years have you enjoyed the most? What experience(s) have you learned the most from?
RB: The part I have enjoyed the most is spending time with the families that believed in Ledo and became a part of the Ledo family. They took a risk on us and the brand. Many of these people have become very, very successful, and I love to see that! It’s great to see three generations of Ledo families out there in our stores. Some Ledo families are growing with us through Urban Bar-B-Que.
I have also learned much from several of my colleagues at the Restaurant Association of Maryland, where I was even chairman in the 1990s. There are a lot of hard-working people in this industry who spend countless hours striving to provide a great experience to their guests. I’ve also served on the board of the National Restaurant Association, which has provided me an even greater perspective on the industry.
Of course, I also need to mention the mentoring I’ve received over the years from my father and grandfather. Being a family company, some of our best business meetings have happened at the dinner table, with several generations of Bealls represented. Over the years, we’ve been very fortunate to have a dedicated team of people working with our family, some of them for more than 30 years.
If you had to sum it up, what is it about your family — what set of traits, or what set of values, perhaps — that has allowed you to be successful across three generations in the often volatile restaurant business?
RB: There are a few things that I think are helpful in our family dynamic. First, we acknowledge that each of us has special talents, and we make way for each of us to develop these talents. I think the problem with some family companies is that members compete for the same jobs. We work to individually specialize and stay out of each other’s way as much as possible. The second thing is to allow an extreme, short-lived burst of passion and then let it go. We hone this technique on the family boat “Reel Ledo.” We love to deep-sea sport fish. I have to warn guests on board that we get very intense when a fish is hooked. There is a lot of screaming and heavy language while that fish is in play. But whether landed or lost, things cool quickly and we are laughing moments later.
We hear you are planning to retire. Do you have firm plans for that now?
RB: I have started to pull back a little — turning over more responsibility to others on the team — but by no means am I retiring. I will remain close to the product and people of Ledo. As for what’s next — who knows! I’m sure my path will always include people and food.