“Pizza is inherently a group food,” says Woodstock’s Pizza co-owner Laura Ambrose. Indeed, groups have been gathering around the irresistible pies—hand-tossed, secret-sauced, and generously topped—at the corner of Higuera and Osos since 1980. Last month, Woodstock’s opened The Backyard, part of a $1.5 million renovation that took 17 days to complete, further enhancing and greatly expanding a favorite gathering place for students, families, sports teams, even wedding parties!
The Woodstock’s story actually begins in Corvallis, Oregon. The year was 1977, and Chuck Woodstock had a vision. He wanted to open a student-oriented pizzeria using his mother’s marinara sauce (a recipe that remains secret to this day), a fold-over crust (in white or whole wheat) that has sauce inside, and more toppings than any of his competitors, to ensure you get all the toppings in every single bite. The first Woodstock’s opened that year and was soon a big hit.
Three years later, Chuck Woodstock and partner Mike Chew opened the first California store in San Luis Obispo, shortly followed by Isla Vista, Chico, San Diego, and Davis. Jeff Ambrose, who’s been with Woodstock’s since the early Oregon days, purchased all five California stores when Chuck and Mike were killed in a private plane crash in 1985. Jeff and his wife, Laura, have carried the Woodstock’s legacy into the present, opening two more stores—one in Santa Cruz and one in Pacific Beach—for a total of seven.
Today, Woodstock’s is ranked the #2 independent pizzeria nationwide, is known for its “green” business practices, is certified Ocean Friendly by the Surfrider Foundation, and has donated more than $200,000 (not to mention countless free pizzas!) to local groups this last year.
With a motto that proclaims “Giving back is the backbone of our business,” Woodstock’s has been generous to the community it feeds, donating to such local charities as United Blood Service and The United Way. It also has an employee stock ownership plan, and encourages managers to become owners. Jeff and Laura Ambrose divide up the business equally, with Laura spending time on special projects such as renovations and opening new locations; and Jeff more involved in the day-to-day running of the company. They have two sons, Cole 21, and Brett 23. Both have worked at Woodstock’s since high school. Cole is a student at Cal Poly and is currently a driver and dispatcher for the family business. Brett is a recent UCLA graduate living in Los Angeles. Though he has a full-time job, Brett still helps out with special events in his spare time.
Naturally, a student-oriented pizzeria would employ lots of students. Jeff and Laura have upwards of 70 of them, all with differing school schedules. “Keeping track of all their scheduling requirements is an enormous job and we’re grateful for a talented management team in Mike Swift and Tim Weaver to keep things running smoothly, especially with lots of changes since the remodel and expansion,” said Jeff. “We love having these bright young people as employees, and we always tell them their school comes first.”
Keeping up with current trends is also a challenge. In the almost four decades since the SLO store opened, the Ambroses have seen it all: wood-fired pizzas, all-you-can-eat pizza places, flatbread pizzas, and fast-food pizza.
“We believe we are different … we have staying power … we strive for what we call the ultimate pizza experience,” said Laura. “It’s not just pizza we’re selling, it’s a relationship with our guests.”
That relationship was in full evidence on the evening of September 27, when SLO’s pizza-loving population showed up en masse for Woodstock’s grand re-opening. Even Mayor Heidi Harmon was present, posing with a slice of pepperoni. The Backyard, with its welcoming fireplace, dozens of TV screens, large central bar, and comfortable booths has doubled the space, doubled its staff, and increased production by a third. They’ve expanded their beverage choices to include 24 tap beers, kombucha, yerba ma mate, and wine. There’s even a brand new gelato bar!
“It’s amazing to talk with the many people who’ve been loyal customers since we first opened,” said Laura. “We have hundreds of thousands of Woodstock’s alumni who attended Cal Poly or lived in SLO and make pilgrimages back whenever they can. Now we’re getting second-generation customers, students who tell us their parents reminisce fondly of their times here!”
“We’re very grateful to the community of San Luis Obispo for supporting us over the past 38 years!” said Jeff.
Employees at Woodstock’s are selected for their originality, energy, and interactive people skills. They often talk about being part of the Woodstock’s family and spend time socializing together in their off-hours. Communal tables, trivia and pint nights, seasonal celebrations, and the multitude of ages—from grade-schoolers to seniors—you see at Woodstock’s through the large street-side windows, all lend to the feeling of community that makes the corner downtown fixture so appealing. The Ambroses and their patrons agree: “Woodstock’s serves up pizza with soul!”