Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana's new CEO Frederique Leonard | Photo by RDP3 Photography

A Season of Change

In December 2020 / January 2021, Eat by Jenn Rice1 Comment

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Frederique Leonard, CEO of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana, shares her vision for the restaurants going forward.

It’s been a long time coming but finally, Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana are ready to open their doors to diners again, under completely new management and a new CEO. Brewery Bhavana, the nationally acclaimed combination restaurant-brewery-bookstore, will open December 1, while next door, Bida Manda, the intimate Laotian restaurant on Blount Street, will open December 8.

Chef Lon Bounsanga and his team will bring back popular staples and the team is currently working on new dishes the chef says will become “fast favorites.” On the beer side, a new brewery team has been working on innovative new beers, including MOON, a corn lager, launching the first week of December. Larkspur 2020, Bhavana’s annual Bière de Champagne, will be released for the holiday season and online beer sales and shipping are in the works, too.

In March, the restaurants closed indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in May, allegations on social media of harassment and mismanagement resulted in owner and manager Vansana Nolintha stepping away from the company he founded at the request of co-owners Vanvisa Nolintha (Vansana’s sister) and brewer Patrick Woodson. Vansana has since divested of all ownership in the company. Vanvisa and Woodson were left to chart a path forward; they will remain co-owners of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana respectively, though they will not remain in management roles and have no say in the operational decisions of either of the restaurants. 

In September, Frederique Leonard was hired as CEO to oversee both restaurants. Leonard assembled a new team quickly, hiring Jeremiah Ramos as general manager, and Courtney Osgood as publicist. In the past few months, Leonard and Ramos have been focusing on building new teams for both of the restaurants, plus the brewery production facility that Woodson oversaw. Leonard is clear that in no way is the new team dismissing any of the restaurants’ previous employees.

Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana’s new General Manager Jeremiah Ramos | Photo by RDP3 Photography

“I have personally reached out to all of them and have offered the opportunity to come back and apply to work for the restaurants, if it’s of interest to them,” Leonard says. “I’ve opened my door and invited them to meet with me individually, in person or virtually, so that we can get to know each other. I believe in equality and fairness and want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to join us in this next chapter, if they’re interested and feel that it’s the right fit.”

Operationally, Leonard says, the team is “breathing new life into the spaces,” implementing new practices and procedures.

“The majority of these changes are internal, so it’s unlikely that the public will notice too much,” Leonard says. “But it’s extremely important for us as a team to be in sync and confident in this new direction, so that we can deliver on the experience that the community knows and expects from us.”

I wonder what it will be like stepping back into two of our most prized restaurants for the first time, sinking my teeth into dumplings and crab fried rice, in a new light. Will the atmosphere feel different? Will the food taste different? I am uncertain about many things at the moment but over the past few months I’ve been accepting change and practicing the art of patience religiously. Personally, I’ve been pondering how the winter months will go with a side of optimism.

Optimism is a word I’ve used in conversation with Leonard over and over again.

Raised in large cities in France, including Versailles and Dijon in Burgundy, Leonard possesses a deep passion for both gastronomy and terroir. Her hospitality industry resume spans from a stint as a prep cook at Palace kitchens in Paris to attending the Vatel Culinary Institute to participating in the the Hospitality Management MBA program at Cornell University in upstate New York. Most recently, Leonard served as director of operations at Giorgios Hospitality Group.

“The most important thing that I’ve learned over the years —especially in an incredibly demanding city like New York—is that you need to be truthful, transparent and respectful,” Leonard says. “I have a very deep love and respect for the industry that I work in but I’ll be the first to admit that, sometimes, it can be extremely challenging and difficult. But once you realize that it’s the passion of the people involved in the industry that’s delivering genuine hospitality to their guests and the community, you start to cater first to your team so they will transmit your values and appreciation to your guests, naturally.”

Leonard felt an immediate bond with Raleigh, a city she sees as growing but staying true to its roots.

“It’s a special place to me,” she says. “It’s reminiscent of one of my favorite places in New York—a special part of Greenwich Village, about 25 years ago—right before it took off and became the place we all know today. I see Raleigh as being a gastronomical destination and it will define its own style in the process. I personally can’t wait to see it.”

Leonard says the position as CEO of Bida Manda and Brewery Bhavana felt like “something [she] was waiting for but didn’t even realize.”

“I felt like it was the right time for me to take on a challenge that I’m confident is going to make a real impact on the Raleigh community and beyond,” she adds. “[The owners] knew that they needed to bring on someone that had much more experience in leading a company of this size and caliber.”

The shedding of the restaurant’s boarded up windows, a result of May’s protests for racial justice, feel symbolic, akin to a snake shedding its skin because it doesn’t fit anymore — or because it’s simply old and drained. This is part of the snake’s growing process. Keep an eye out for changes, although, Leonard says, the only thing that will never change is the team’s “genuine intention to deliver a unique experience in a unique space with unique flavors.”

I don’t know if anything will go back to its original state and we don’t have a time machine to go back in time—but would we really want to if we could? I’ve found many silver linings during these unpredictable times. It’s a time to make impactful changes, whether a restaurant owner or just in a sense of day-to-day life. And sometimes it takes shaking things up to get to the next point, a sentiment Leonard seems to share.

“We couldn’t be more thrilled to share this next chapter with the community,” Leonard says. “We’re looking forward to a bright future.”

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