by Len Lear
I would not be surprised if Becky Koval, a jack-of-all-trades at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Chestnut Hill, failed to cry when she was born at Chestnut Hill Hospital 36 years ago. Most likely she emerged into the world with a smile on her face because she has been smiling ever since. And she has taken that infectious smile to 40 states of the U.S., sort of like Lewis and Clark (although they do not say in their journals how much they really smiled).
According to Kevin Finn, president and co-founder of Iron Hill, “Becky has always been an asset to Iron Hill. Whenever I see her, she has a wonderful, positive attitude, and that always has a positive effect on everyone around her. I am so glad to have her back at Iron Hill.”
Becky, who radiates sunshine, said three times during our interview last week, “I don’t know why you would want to do a story about me. What have I done?”
My answer: Anyone who has brought smiles to people in 40 states and is widely admired in the community has done something significant. Everyone cannot be a Kardashian (thank goodness). Iron Hill, by the way, is a chain of 11 brewpubs in the Delaware Valley. Founded in 1994 in Newark, Delaware, the chain is named after the nearby hill on which the Revolutionary War Battle of Cooch’s Bridge took place in 1777.
Koval, a native of Roxborough, attended Saul Agricultural School in Roxborough, as did her older and younger brothers. At the time she planned to go into ornamental horticulture, but after two years at Delaware Valley Community College, she realized she did not have a green thumb (or green fingers), and she transferred to the Restaurant School of Philadelphia (at Walnut Hill) in University City for hospitality management.
“I realized then,” she said, “that I was good at two-person interaction. I wanted my face in your face. I naturally have a caretaker thing. It is a blessing and a curse. I never take care of myself. Now I find it hard to get that same level of service elsewhere.”
At the age of 21, after two years in culinary school, Becky was offered a position at Philly Rock Bar & Grill on Delaware Avenue as manager. She stayed there for two years, which is her usual tenure at a job (as you will soon see). She enjoyed the business but hated the commute. Then she got a job at Marabella’s restaurant in Warrington (owned by Gabriel Marabella, then a Chestnut Hill resident) and stayed for her usual two years. She moved on to Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in North Wales shortly after it opened in 2004. She worked in all front-of-the-house positions, was a part-time manager for a few months and then one year as a full-time manager. When her characteristic two years were up, so was she.
“I got the itch to travel,” she said. “There’s a lot out there. I wanted to see it all. I always wanted to see my own country first before seeing the rest of the world. I saved and planned and took off in my own car.”
Becky proceeded to put 120,000 miles on her Nissan Versa over six years. She first drove to Denver, where she lived for two years (of course). While there she would go to other states, camping, fishing and hiking in Utah and Wyoming, etc. She would meet people along the way, and they’d go hiking, fishing and camping together. “We’d pull out a map of Colorado, close our eyes and pick a place. It was fun. I love being around the water.” (Her family had a shore house in Long Beach Island, which they still have.)
After two years in Denver, Becky came back home to Philly, worked for one year at Iron Hill and then went back on the road, driving to Seattle (her favorite city) and living in three different places on the outskirts of Seattle over a period of four years. During most of that time she worked in an ale house, continuing to develop her knowledge and appreciation of beer. She came back to Roxborough, where her parents still live, and Iron Hill in January, 2014.
Where did the impetus come for all that travel? “At 25 I was diagnosed with endometriosis, which caused infertility,” Becky replied. “I figured I won’t have kids, so I have to travel. I had to figure out what I want in life. I still have not figured it out, but I do know I’m job-oriented. But life experiences have made me what I am. I’m proud of what I have accomplished. Many people want to do what I’ve done, but they have kids. I came home this time because my parents are getting older. They’re in their late 60s. I want them to know me as an adult. They helped to make me the beautiful person I have become. I have a family that cares about me very much, so I want to spend time with them. It was time to come home.”
In all her travels, the scariest incident for Becky was when she was driving through a tornado in Kansas. “My best friend, Andrea, was in the car,” she recalled. “We were chasing a sunset. The sky turned black. Turns out there was a ‘tornado watch — stay indoors,’ but we did not have an indoors. We sped away trying to drive past it, but it turned out we were driving right into it. The rain was so hard we could not see anything but the white dotted line in the middle of the highway. We were going 10-15 miles per hour. Lightning was hitting the ground next to the car. We finally got to a rest area, and a tree fell and crashed into the building. It was a terrifying, intense 60 to 90 minutes with lightning and thunder non-stop. As soon as it died down, we drove fast for five more hours to get out of Kansas.”
Becky, whose ethnic background is Polish and Italian, is currently a part-time server, bartender, manager and expediter. “I like to leave my mark everywhere in the most cheerful way,” she said. “I want to make sure everything is just right … What I love about this business is that every day you meet new people. Maybe they are having a bad day, and my smile might turn that around. How great is that? Whether they are guests or employees, for whatever reason I can do it, it’s a blessing.”
For more information, call 215-948-5600 or visit www.ironhillbrewery.com.