Above: Thirty years of teamwork. Pictured in back (l-r): Eliezer Valentin, Carlos Ortiz-Rivas, Luis Torres. Seated (l-r): Danny “Foz” Gildea, Van Thongvong, Betsy LeRoy, Jackie Christopher, Bryon Geiger, Tom Donahue.
By Pam George
Photos by Justin Heyes
With its mint green accent walls, salmon pink upholstery and crystal lamps, Pizza by Elizabeths is a beacon for ladies who lunch. On any given day, they crowd tables for two under the cathedral ceiling. Come dinner, families are nestled in the plush booths, and couples sip craft cocktails at the bar.
Whether it’s lunch or dinner, many customers order pizza named for famous Elizabeths, including the Montgomery, the Taylor and the Queen. But interestingly, pizza is not always the longtime patrons’ favorite food.
“I love, love, love their tomato soup,” says Ellen Roberts. “I had some on Saturday even though it was 90 degrees outside.” Joan Bernard maintains that the restaurant’s chicken salad is “perfect and fresh.” And Cheryl Heiks craves the crabmeat-and-artichoke dip with whole wheat bread sticks or the buffalo chicken dip.
Holly Holland, meanwhile, is addicted to the balsamic vinaigrette. “I could drink it,” she says. Holland and her family have been going to Pizza by Elizabeths since it opened. “So many great memories with family and friends,” she says.
Thirty years of them, to be precise. Pizza by Elizabeth has ruled the artisan pie scene since 1993. But that’s not the Greenville restaurant’s only notable achievement. Social media posts regularly celebrate employee anniversaries of 19, 20 and 25 years.
The credit goes to co-founder Betsy LeRoy. For while oversized images of the famous Elizabeths hang throughout the dining room, she is the face of the brand.
Meeting of the Minds
Betsy LeRoy was born in Michigan, but the family moved when she was 9 for her father’s job with the DuPont Co. She is the fifth of six children. However, seven years separate her from her next-oldest sibling.
“They’re kind of like one family, and we’re another,” she says comparing his four sisters to her and her younger brother. “One sister was already married by the time we moved and had a child, and two were in college.”
The age gap diminished when the children all grew into adulthood.
LeRoy studied early childhood education at the University of Delaware, and her interest in helping children hasn’t waned. She’s worked with children ages 3 to 5, and today, she is a court-appointed special advocate for a foster child.
Although LeRoy was a hostess at H.A. Winston & Co. in Brandywine Hundred, her hospitality experience was limited. However, she loved cooking, and so did her neighbor, Betty Snyder.
“She really liked my pizza sauce, and I really liked her dough,” LeRoy recalls. “We traded recipes.”
While on vacation, Snyder talked about having an empty nest — her fourth child was bound for college. What would she do next? The conversation turned to restaurants, and Snyder asked LeRoy, “Why don’t we open a pizza restaurant in Greenville?”
LeRoy, who had two sons, ages 3 and 5, laughed. Snyder convinced her to explore the idea, and their research led them to Spago in Los Angeles, where Wolfgang Puck had pioneered the concept of artisan pizza with gourmet toppings. The women had much better pizza, they agreed.
Before LeRoy knew it, the women were looking at space in One Greenville Crossing, the one-story shopping center that fronts Kennett Pike, and Pizza by Elizabeths opened in 1993. The name was a no-brainer, given the partners were both named Elizabeth. But they also followed the marketing advice of Snyder’s husband, Ritchie. To gain credibility, he told them to take ownership of a product or service.
Inspired by the canine-festooned White Dog Café in Philly, they put photos of famous Elizabeths in the bathrooms; the 13-seat restaurant was so slender there was little room for wall art.
Holland was among the first customers. “I remember that tiny restaurant and waiting for a table — worth the wait!” she says. Al Mascitti, then the dining critic for The News Journal, evidently agreed. He praised the 10 available cheeses and nine each of veggie and meat toppings — plus herbs and seasonings.
“Ultimately, though, the number of toppings isn’t as impressive as their uniformly high quality,” he wrote. “Pepperoni and sausage don’t taste like this at Pizza Hut, and no cheeses this tasty make their way onto Domino’s.” The crust, he continued, was chewy without being thick or doughy, and it was nicely crisp on the bottom.
When the partners tried to expand in the place, they met parking space restrictions from the county’s Unified Development Code, enacted to check development. Eager to grow the business, Snyder and LeRoy looked toward Rehoboth Beach, which had no artisan pizzas.
To the Beach & Back
The partners found an old house at 23 Baltimore Ave. It was a great location but a fire hazard, given the restaurant needed a wood-fired pizza oven. In 1997, they razed the house to build a 140-seat two-story structure with a balcony.
Rehoboth Beach’s dining scene was nothing like it is now, LeRoy says. “If you wanted pizza, you went to Grotto or Nicola’s.” Customers were slow to choose artisan pies over boardwalk fare. And while business picked up, finding staff was challenging.
“We sat down and said: ‘If we do everything in our power, work as hard as we can and make concessions, can this be successful?” she recalls. The answer was yes, but there would be a cost to their families.
“We decided we were going to take a big loss, and we sold it,” LeRoy says. It is now home to Eden.
Meanwhile, changes in New Castle County’s code had allowed the partners to expand the Greenville site to 24 tables and have a dining room with doors for private events.
In 2002, Snyder’s husband died suddenly at the age of 54. For 33 years, he’d worked at W.L. Gore and Associates, the business Snyder’s family started, and she joined the company. After several years, Snyder sold her share of the business to LeRoy, who quietly became the sole owner.
In 2008, Pizza by Elizabeths moved into nearby Greenville Shopping Center, where it once again became neighbors with Janssen’s Market, which had also relocated to larger digs. Admittedly, there’s a lot of musical chairs in Greenville. Pizza By Elizabeths now occupies Brandywine Brewing Co.’s old spot, and the brewpub’s former owner, David Dietz, later opened BBC Tavern in Pizza by Elizabeths’ original location.
What’s on the Menu
Pizza has been the menu’s start since the start. However, entrees have come and gone as chefs changed.
Opening chef Amporn Vasquez was the diminutive darling of news articles for her skill and story. The Thai native, one of seven children, ran away from home three times to escape an abusive mother and the threat of an arranged marriage.
Before becoming a chef, Vasquez cared for LeRoy’s young children and cooked their meals. At age 50, she graduated cum laude with a Delaware Technical Community College culinary degree, and her bright personality made her well known at Pizza by Elizabeths. In 2011, Vasquez won a Faces of Diversity American Dream Award from the National Restaurant Association and was named Chef of the Year by the First State Chefs’ Association.
After Vasquez retired, Paul Egnor took over. Lamb chops, lasagna, curried tilapia and chicken pot pies joined pizza on the menu. And, for a time, so did craft beer brewed on site. When COVID hit, the restaurant scaled back to primarily pizza, salads, dips, soup and other legacy items.
“We’ve put a couple of things back on the menu, like our tacos, but I don’t know that we’ll ever do burgers or that kind of thing again — it’s just that’s not in our wheelhouse,” LeRoy says.
The restaurant no longer has its own beer. “It was Paul’s dream,” LeRoy explains. “He wanted to do it so badly, and another guy who worked here really wanted to do it, and I backed them. Then they started having kids, and nobody wanted to be the one that was here brewing overnight.”
Twenty years ago, the team devised the idea for a pizza truck but put it on hold. Now, two employees have resurrected the concept. “I said, ‘Well, it’s not going to happen anytime soon, but if you want to look into it …,’” she says. “So, they’ve kind of been thinking about that.”
LeRoy’s support for her team’s ideas is likely one reason she has so many longtime employees. For instance, Van Thongvong started 25 years ago as a dishwasher and has had just about every job in the restaurant, he says. Now he is a manager.
“Betsy is a good boss, and it’s fun here,” says the Middletown resident, who briefly worked in a real estate office after graduating with a criminal justice degree.
The kitchen has so many veteran staffers the restaurant no longer operates with an executive chef. Indeed, LeRoy no longer works nights or weekends, and she confidently travels without checking email. However, she’s not interested in selling.
“My main goal for this restaurant is for everyone who works here to be able to continue to work here,” she says. She explains that a new owner might look at the salaries of the longtime employees and clean house. So, LeRoy told her children that they must take on the restaurant if anything happens to her or her husband, Ben. “I told them they could basically do it by Zoom because everyone here is so good.”
Loyal customers can attest that the team does not go through the motions. When you order a pizza, salad or tomato soup at Pizza by Elizabeths, it tastes how you’d expect.
“I think that the reason we’ve endured is because we were the first that had gourmet pizza,” LeRoy says. “And I don’t think anyone has been able to beat us yet.”