Food for Thought
Cheers to Whaler’s
I first met Andy Tran of Whaler’s Brewing Company at a meeting of the Rhode Island Brewers Guild. I was impressed by his enthusiasm and knowledge of the industry, even though Whaler’s is a new endeavor for him. For Andy and his colleagues, that’s just how they do business. They go all in.
And so far, it’s paying off.
Whaler’s is the product of Tran and his friends Josh Dunlap and Wes Staschke. They are brewing beers in a warehouse space in the Peace Dale Mill. The room is spacious and not yet filled, but in the corner, wooden booths from the Mews Tavern provide ample room for customers to sit and sample. Nearby, you can observe the brewing process firsthand, or skip the education and opt to play pool instead. It’s a casual space, but can easily be transformed for special events, like the Peace Dale Neighborhood Revitalization networking meeting that took place there recently.
The “flagship” beers at Whaler’s are the hazelnut cream stout and the American strong ale, but they are experimenting and tweaking often, and the brews on tap during my visit also included the brown ale, autumn spiced ale, the white IPA and the cranberry sour. Just as they are jumping on seasonal trends, the team at Whaler’s is also quick to join the trends of this growing industry. They joined the Brewers Guild because they are ready and eager to be on the forefront of the movement here. Microbreweries and brew-pubs are popping up all over Rhode Island, and they are an important and complementary business model to the overall food economy. Food is a central piece of tourism in Rhode Island, and breweries like Whaler’s provide a fun weekend afternoon activity for tourists and residents alike. More and more restaurants are seeing the value of working with local breweries and serving their products, as well. Rhode Islanders are passionate about buying – and drinking – local. Whaler’s is already in the Mews Tavern, and they hope to expand in the near future. The same goes for local liquor stores. On both fronts, Whaler’s footprint continues to grow.
I was particularly pleased to see that Whaler’s is committed to their community. They are already working with local agencies to sponsor events or otherwise support Rhode Island. I have found that to be true with so many small businesses and it’s truly a testament to the character of the business owners, including Andy, Josh and Wes.
Family First Farm
The idyllic drive in to the 96-acre Pelloni Farm, with the trees glowing in shades of red and orange, should have prepared me. The stretch of Hopkinton road leading to the farm is breathtaking, and the barn-turned-farm stand fit the landscape perfectly. The smell of fresh-baked apple and berry pies wafting outside completes the experience.
The sights, smells and tastes of Pelloni Farm all tell the story of a family that is committed to local farming and cooperating with other small businesses. Even on a cloudy Thursday morning, customers came in a steady flow, going out of their way to comment on the quality of the food there. After tasting a harvest pie and four different jams, I have to agree.
Anthony Pelloni, his wife Donna and their son, Tom, dedicate their lives to the farm stand, which Anthony built himself. They plant and harvest their own vegetables, fruits and berries, and combine them in many different configurations for jams and pies. Donna has always been a baker, and Tom followed suit, graduating from the culinary program at Chariho High School. I was thrilled to hear that, because as the co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, I don’t believe that pursuing a degree from a four-year college should be seen as the only viable path for our students. While that is a great path for so many – and a path I took myself – I believe that we need to do a better job helping young people to understand and play to their strengths. Not everyone will go to college, and career and technical training provides an important alternative that can lead to good-paying jobs. I introduced the Counseling for Career Choice Act for that very reason. School districts and educators must be connected with the local business climate so they can better understand where jobs are available and what the current market trends are.
Thanks to the excellent education and training he received in Chariho, Tom is well prepared to be the future of Pelloni Farm, and I am confident that he will continue the rich tradition his parents started at this hidden gem in Hopkinton.
As I headed over to the Scituate Farmers Market, coordinated by the North Scituate Public Library, I wondered how many business owners I would meet for the first time. With this being the fourth farmers market I visited during my RI Food Week follow-up tour, I assumed there would be a lot of repeat vendors. East Greenwich, Armory Park and Goddard Park all have large contingents of vendors, so I questioned how many first-time visits there could possibly be.
I was wrong, and that’s a testament both to the agriculture industry in Rhode Island and to the folks who are marketing it. There were quite a few booths I had not yet interacted with, from the Travis Family Farm and Carolyn’s Kitchen to AMCC Cattle Co. and White Oak Farm. Just as shoppers use markets as an opportunity to peruse a variety of products and foods, I use it as an opportunity to meet a variety of business owners and talk to them about how I can support the work they do in preserving open space, producing healthy products and maintaining a business in Rhode Island.
Farmers markets are an increasingly popular – and increasingly common – activity in Rhode Island. Markets now run year-round, and food producers and farmers have their pick of location when it comes to showcasing their wares. For many businesses, the markets are an opportunity to put their products in front of new audiences that may not otherwise have access. These are small businesses that might not have a web presence, and for some of the farmers in particular, are located off the beaten path. Markets offer visibility and the chance to pool resources to market cooperatively. More traffic is good for everyone, and it’s great to see so many businesses and consumers taking advantage.
Around the Mulberry Bush
Running a small business is more than a full-time job, and yet I have met many Rhode Islanders that manage to balance two full-time jobs in the pursuit of their passion. David and Melissa Wright are two of those individuals. He works full-time as an IT specialist in education and she is a dental hygienist, but they’re both balancing work while growing Mulberry Vineyards from the ground up.
And did I mention they have a baby who’s not even 1 year old yet?
I’m not quite sure how they have done it, but the product is impressive! David became interested in winemaking while a student at the University of Rhode Island. He took science courses that piqued his interest, and began experimenting with vines more than 10 years ago. In 2011, he was ready to set roots in the winery business. He and Melissa purchased the Andrew Brown homestead in Chepachet and have a vision for what the already-beautiful land can become in the future. They have a commitment to preserving the land and home’s historic character, and just behind their home, the tasting room is open for business on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
David admits that starting a business is not an easy endeavor, and we discussed ways to improve the regulatory and licensing processes for start-ups. As I have heard from other business owners, there needs to be more advocacy on behalf of these small businesses. The good news is that food and beverage players are collaborating more and more, and together, their voice is growing louder. Our food economy is stronger than ever, and if we want that trend to continue, we need to keep looking for ways to cut red tape at all levels of government.
In meeting with David and Melissa, you can tell that they really care about the business and about the quality of the wine they serve. Rather than rush to add inventory, they are more concerned with perfecting the varieties of grapes they grow and wines they bottle. They currently offer an American Riesling and a pinot noir, and will take their time in adding to the collection.
Ripe for Growth
You can’t talk about the food economy and Rhode Island’s restaurant scene without recognizing the growing beverage industry. Micro-breweries are popping up all over the place, and the winery business is booming as well.
Tucked off the road in Foster, Nickle Creek Vineyard is a labor of love for Sheri and Steve O’Connor. Steve has been interested in winemaking since his parents bought him an at-home kit. Later in life, once Steve and Sheri had their two sons, they shared a desire to raise their family on a farm. These two passions combined and they purchased land in Foster. The land has now been transformed into a rustic vineyard, turning out white, red and fruit wines made on-site. Their fruit wines are especially popular, often selling out like the autumn cranberry and raspberry bliss did this year. The O’Connors aren’t afraid to think outside the box, either, introducing creative concoctions like their “Foster Nights,” which has a fruity flavor with a chocolate finish.
Nickle Creek wines are available in several local liquor stores, and supporters flock to the vineyard on the weekend for tastings in their newly expanded tasting room. The vineyard is open on Fridays from 12 to 5 p.m. and weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., May through December. Private tastings and tours are also available by appointment. Guests can peruse other local vendors, too, including On the Lane, a Foster business that produces local maple syrup.
Between homework and studying, Sheri and Steve’s young sons, Nick and Kyle, get exactly the experience their parents hoped for them. They learn the science of agriculture and the ins and outs of running a business. Someday, Sheri and Steve say the vineyard will be passed on to them.
Either way, the business is in good hands.
TGIF for Goddard
The Goddard Park Farmers Market starts at 9 a.m. The crowd arrives shortly thereafter and never seems to wane, even as the 1 p.m. closing time nears. I was blown away by the number of vendors and the number of shoppers, with the market winding around the corner when you first drive in to the park. Agricultural Marketing Specialist Ron Neman from DEM, who showed me around the market, said the Goddard Park site has grown exponentially over the years.
That’s not surprising, considering the number of farms is rising along with it. Bucking national trends, Rhode Island has experienced an uptick in the number of farms over the past decade, and for the 1,200+ farms in our state, these markets provide an important outlet for sales and exposure, getting their names and products out there to a clientele that values buying local. One farmer described it to me as an equalizer, because you don’t need to be tech-savvy, or have a great website, or beautiful outdoor signage to attract shoppers at a farmers market. At the market, it’s equal footing for all farms, and for the small farms, that’s an important selling point.
Coming up on October 24 is Food Day, a nationwide movement to support healthy, affordable and sustainable food. In order to celebrate Food Day with a local flair, the Rhode Island Food Policy Council launched the Relish Rhody campaign. Relish Rhody highlights Rhode Island food and growers, inviting members of the community to snap photos while harvesting, delivering, donating, preparing, processing or eating local foods.I was thrilled to offer my support to Relish Rhody, and took my photo while shopping at the Armory Park Farmers Market; thanks to the farmers there, and Kayla Ringelheim from Farm Fresh RI, for showing me around. Learn more about how you can support local food on the RI Food Policy Council’s website.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island is a wonderful non-profit that is focused on growing local food systems and increasing access to healthy, locally-sourced foods. The organization exercises that mission in many different ways, but always with the best interests of Rhode Island farmers, and the health of Rhode Island residents, in mind.
Farm Fresh oversees eight outdoor and two indoor farmers markets directly, and also provides a directory for all of the markets year-round. They are focused on the urban core cities, and low-income areas where access to fresh food can be particularly challenging. One of the most popular markets that Farm Fresh manages is the Armory Park market in Providence. Located at the corner of Parade and Hudson Streets, the market is open on Thursdays from 3:30 to 7 p.m. The weather wasn’t ideal during my visit, but shoppers still hurried through the market to pick up groceries or that night’s dinner.
It was nice to meet the business owners to talk to them about the opportunities and challenges they experience, and it was especially nice to see some of the educational programs run by Farm Fresh. The Healthy Foods, Healthy Families program educates and empowers low-income children and families to shop for and prepare fresh foods. They use fun games for kids and interactive activities for adults to engage new shoppers, and volunteer chefs from Johnson and Wales are on hand to prepare healthy recipes. I was also very impressed by the Harvest Kitchen program, as it connects with youth inside the Rhode Island Training School. While on probation, participants are able to utilize the organization’s Open Kitchen and learn skills for working in food service or culinary arts. As the program progresses, they see the sales and marketing side, getting the full experience of running a food business. Farm Fresh offers programming for seniors, SNAP beneficiaries and runs the Market Mobile program that puts local food into restaurants around the state. The list goes on. In so many cities and towns, and with every population, Farm Fresh is supporting healthy food, healthy living and healthy communities.
Food on the Move
In recent years, Greater Kennedy Plaza has been transformed into a true center of Providence. The team at the Providence Foundation and the Providence Parks Conservancy has made the space a destination for visitors and residents, drawing in the lunchtime crowd from nearby buildings and attracting families interested in a free afternoon of music and activities.
Part of their plan capitalizes on the food truck phenomenon.
Food trucks have made mobile cooking an art form, serving high-quality products from a kitchen on wheels. I am constantly seeing innovative menus coming from these trucks, which often work in concert – not competition – with one another. It’s a community of its own, and a tight-knit one at that. Moving down the line at Kennedy Plaza, each truck owner has something positive to say about the next truck, even making suggestions on their personal favorite things to order. That’s encouraging, and a common thread in the food economy. Restaurants, farmers, fishermen and food manufacturers are, by and large, very supportive of each other. That support is crucial when marketing the industry as a whole. Clearly, these business owners see the big picture.
Wednesdays are one of the most popular days there for the trucks, and Program Manager Jen Smith makes a point of trying to have an assortment of foods represented. During my recent visit to Kennedy Plaza, there was certainly a wide variety on display. I had the opportunity to speak with the operators of Poco Loco Tacos, Ooh Mommi Foods, Portu-Galo, Rocket Fine Street Food, Mama Kim’s Korean BBQ and Noble Knots, and ordered a delicious lunch that consisted of a gourmet burger with gruyere cheese, tater tots and spicy Brava fries. I was so impressed by what these chefs can accomplish in such a small space, all with a line forming outside and customers anxious to keep moving.
Rhode Island has some truly incredible restaurants, and the food trucks here should not be left off that list. They are changing the way we eat and the way we think about dining out, and I applaud the team at Kennedy Plaza for supporting the success of this new ”foodie” movement.
Out to Pasture
Pat’s Pastured is a reminder that the Ocean State should be known for more than its coastline; the farm land is just as integral to our state’s identity. Tucked off South Road in East Greenwich, Pat’s Pastured sits on 80 acres of land, run by farmer Pat McNiff and his collection of laying hens, chickens, cattle, pigs and, of course, his sheep dog, Trav.
Since 2002, Pat has worked to bring pasture-raised and grass-fed meat to the plates of Rhode Islanders, both through restaurant partnerships and direct sales. This farm business is guided by the basic principle that livestock should be free to graze in pasteurized environments in order to provide consumers with healthy, wholesome products that are free of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. Pat, a graduate of Providence College, opens the farm up for tours and participates in statewide campaigns to promote buying local and eating healthy. He wants his customers and all Rhode Islanders to understand what it means to buy and eat local, and the benefits of knowing where your food comes from. One of the great things about Rhode Island is that our small size allows like-minded businesses like Pat’s Pastured and nearby farmers to collaborate and support one another. Add in restaurants, food manufacturers and the many breweries and vineyards here, and you’ve put together an impressive coalition of food economy leaders.
Pat’s Pastured is a labor of love for Pat, who started the farm as a one-man operation but now employs several others. The farm is just one element of his operation, which now features a food truck that sells breakfast sandwiches and fresh burgers made with his eggs and beef. He teaches classes to restaurateurs about proper meat handling techniques. Booths are set up at farmer’s markets to sell to and educate customers.
For Pat, seeing the process through from start to finish is of utmost importance. And it’s a model that has proven successful for him. The business has grown exponentially over the past three years, and he is hopeful that the trend will continue.
Getting to this point was not easy, however. Pat raised concerns about availability of affordable open space for purchase or use as farmland in Rhode Island. The industry is also highly regulated for public safety at the state and federal level, and, as is true for many new businesses, Pat experienced a lengthy and challenging process to bring the business up to speed. He believes processes should be streamlined, and feels strongly that regulatory agencies must make the needs and concerns of business owners a priority. He suggested a business advocate serving as a go-between for businesses and regulators would be helpful, and in the meantime, has taken on an advocacy role himself. He travelled to Washington, D.C., to fight for a strong Farm Bill, and talked to policymakers and their staffs – mine included – about the work he does every day. Pat is a farmer who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, and I look forward to working hard with him in the future to support his business and the 1,200 other farms across Rhode Island.
The East Greenwich Farmers Market runs from 3 to 6 p.m. on Monday afternoons. Having been to several bustling weekend markets, I was unsure of how the crowds would be on a weeknight, especially before the after-work rush showed up after 5. When I arrived at Academy Field at 3:30 in the afternoon, though, I was pleasantly surprised. There was a steady flow of shoppers coming in and out, and a dozen tents showing off the delicacies and wares of participating vendors.
According to Market Manager Tracie Truesdell, that didn’t happen overnight.
She built the market from the ground up. Now that it’s a popular neighborhood destination, located right up the hill from busy Main Street, she has vendors lining up to participate. It’s an eclectic mix, too, featuring olive oil, vegetables, flowers, desserts, fresh bread, meats and more. I picked up some corn on the cob from Schartner Farms; peaches, apples and cider from Barden Family Orchard; and some delicious dessert from June Love’s English Cakes. I wasn’t the only one filling up my bag, either, and it was nice to see how many shoppers were regulars – familiar to the businesses and to each other. That’s one of my favorite parts about farmers markets. Not only do they showcase the many great farms and food companies in our state, but they also serve as community centers and meeting places that help to foster strong neighborly connections.
If you want to explore one of the dozens of other farmers markets across Rhode Island, visit the Farm Fresh RI website for a complete listing.
Focus on the Future
One of the comments made during my RI Food Week that really resonated with me came from Dale Venturini of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. Dale said that one of the challenges in finding good hospitality employees is that there is a stigma about those jobs. But the truth is that many people make successful careers out of the hospitality and food service industry. When it comes to college, Gerry Auth, director of the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center, notes that the majority of his students do go on to a two- or four-year school. And for those who don’t, they graduate high school with a skill set that makes them a more competitive job candidate.
As co-chair of the Congressional Career and Technical Education Caucus, I am very familiar with, and appreciative of, the work done at technical schools like CACTC. Career and technical education is a huge component of rebuilding Rhode Island’s economy for several reasons; we want to direct individuals into careers with growth-potential and we want companies to open and grow here because they know that Rhode Island has a highly skilled workforce. CACTC and schools like it are the first line of defense in building that workforce.
Given Rhode Island’s strong food economy, it makes sense that the culinary program at CACTC is one of the most popular career pathways. The classroom is a full working kitchen, and during my visit, I saw students creating new recipes and perfecting classics like chicken piccata. It was great to see them in action, clearly comfortable in the culinary setting. One student said she plans to open a restaurant one day, while several others talked about culinary school. The young woman making the chicken piccata shared that she received her acceptance letter from Johnson and Wales that same day. All of the students showed great promise, and I am so proud that they have identified something they are passionate about at such a young age. They aren’t worried about stigmas or what they are “supposed” to do after graduation. We need to follow suit and encourage our young people to understand the job market and prepare themselves for the jobs that are out there.
And if there’s one thing that RI Food Week taught me, it’s that the food economy does offer jobs. I hope, with smart investments and a strategy to rebrand Rhode Island as a “Culinary Valley,” those jobs will continue to grow.
The Perfect Pour
I have known Sheila Gold since I was a kid. I grew up with her children, and she and my mother were always friendly.
Little did I know, that family went on to own a business.
Sheila and her son, Jason, run ShelaLara Vineyards and Winery, where they ferment, vinify, bottle and label wines on site in Coventry – another surprising find for many Rhode Islanders. The winery is located off Reservoir Road in an unsuspecting building, save for the ShelaLara sign out front. You’d never guess that inside, dozens of people taste ShelaLara products, including their signature Wine Slush. An unconventional take on the wine business, ShelaLara’s Wine Slush has the consistency of a frozen Lemonade, with the taste of a dessert wine. They also make mixed drinks with their “glacier wine” products. Fruit essence wines include “wicked watermelon,” “tropical calypso bianco” and “green apple gert.”
Like I said, it’s unconventional, but the Golds have found a way to set themselves apart – a smart move for any businessperson. They saw what was already being done in the market and took a different approach. Based on the crowd at Saturday’s tasting, that was a good decision.
An Unexpected Find
Nearly every person I spoke to about RI Food Week had the same thing to say when they saw my Saturday schedule: “There’s a vineyard in Johnston?”
The answer is yes, and it’s a good one.
The story behind Verde Vineyards is unconventional, but it just adds to the charm. Jim Verde was already in his 70s when he opened up, having enjoyed a long career in education. Jim was a biology teacher at the Community College of Rhode Island, a job that dovetails more into winemaking than you might expect, especially given Jim’s commitment to energy efficiency. The vineyard and Jim’s home, which is also on site, utilize geothermal heating and cooling and solar electricity thanks to rows of solar panels on the barn roof. Jim’s love of science also gives him a leg up when it comes to understanding how wine ferments and reacts in different situations. A man of science and a lover of wine, not to mention someone with strong ties to his Italian heritage, Jim brought his passions together to become a winemaker by hobby.
After retirement, it became more than a hobby.
Fortunately for Jim, his next door neighbor happens to be Cindy Salvato, the chef, former Johnson & Wales educator and current food tour guide, who knows the food and restaurant landscape in Rhode Island as well as anybody. Cindy leads a walking tour, Savoring Federal Hill, which is wildly popular. She has helped draw attention to Verde Vineyards, and she and Jim are close friends on the foodie scene.
Verde Vineyards opened to the public in 2012 and now has hundreds of plants with half a dozen varieties of grapes. The vineyard’s specialty is a St. Croix red wine, which can be enjoyed on the two-acre property tucked off Hartford Avenue. The land is so close to a growing commercial base in the town, but you take Hopkins Avenue and the driveway into the vineyard is a winding dirt path, wide enough only for one car. When the road enters a clearing, the view is spectacular and unexpected – a beautiful, rustic-looking vineyard, chickens crossing the drive, all just five minutes from 295.
Give Me Liberty
New England is full of micro-breweries, and American vineyards are no longer reserved for Napa Valley. But distilleries remain an elusive breed of small business, with the playing field dominated by recognizable names like Jack Daniels whiskey in Tennessee and Maker’s Mark bourbon in Kentucky.
Michael Reppucci wants to change that.
Tucked into the Peacedale Mill Complex, with traffic from the farmers market walking by, is Sons of Liberty, Mike’s foray into making a great American whiskey. Mike sounds more like a scientist than a businessman when he explains the distilling process, but the taste speaks for itself. Sons of Liberty has two varieties of single malt whiskeys – Uprising and Battle Cry – as well as Loyal 9 Vodka and flavored versions. The company has set itself apart with flavored seasonal whiskeys, too, an approach often reserved for beers. Mike is a big fan of seasonal beers, though, and wanted to replicate the effect. Sons of Liberty now offers a pumpkin-flavored whiskey and a hop-flavored whiskey, which Mike says tastes like an India pale ale but finishes like a whiskey. On the Sons of Liberty website, all of the liquors come with suggestions for mixed drinks.
The products are high quality, but Mike isn’t satisfied to stop there. A distillery might not seem like the most obvious participant in the buy local movement, but that’s exactly what Mike hopes to capitalize on. He wants people to know that Sons of Liberty is a Rhode Island company and, someday, he would like to see all of the ingredients grown locally. I’d like to see that, too.
Down on the Farm
If the South Kingstown Farmers Market is any indication, the people of South County aren’t fans of lazy Saturday mornings. The Peacedale Mill Complex was bustling when I arrived, and it was nice to see so many vendors and shoppers greeting one another as friends. Clearly, the market has fostered a community spirit in the area, and some shoppers navigated the aisles of farm stands as quickly as a supermarket.
The Mill really does offer just as much. You can purchase jams, seafood, meat, dessert and even jewelry and home goods all on-site, and produce from farmers like Senator Sue Sosnowski. Top it off with a cold brew iced coffee from The Coffee Guy. What I love most about the setting is the community aspect of it. What an incredible feeling it is to meet so many like-minded people in one place – people who want to support local business and who have an appreciation for the high-quality products being grown and produced by Rhode Islanders. These loyal shoppers come back week after week because they are comforted by knowing where their food comes from and, even better, who is responsible for growing it. To be able to meet the farmer who provides for your dinner is a special experience, and not one that all Americans get to have. Once again, our size is an asset, because there is less distance to travel from field to refrigerator.
The timing of my visit was perfect, because after spending a week visiting with restaurant owners, food manufacturers, farmers and fishermen, the Farmers Market really tied it all together. In fact, many of the people I met during RI Food Week were participating in the market, including Baffoni’s Poultry Farm.
And it was nice for me to be able to greet them as friends.
Paul and Don Baffoni show Rep. Langevin some of their fresh merchandise.
At dinner at Nick’s on Broadway, the chicken with house-smoked bacon and thyme just jumped out at me. Served with pea greens and wheat berries, it sounded delicious. The other thing that jumped out was the name – Roasted Baffoni Farm chicken. I applaud Derek Wagner’s appreciation of local ingredients, and after visiting Baffoni Farm, I understand completely. Not only are the chickens and turkeys raised cage free on 80 acres of land in a rural stretch of Johnston, but the birds are also fed an entirely vegetarian diet, free of hormones. With a slaughterhouse on-site, the products being sold by Baffoni’s are as fresh as possible.
The Baffoni family has been raising poultry since 1935. The fourth generation of the family can now be found either out on the farm or in the small storefront where they sell some poultry and eggs to customers in the area. Much of the business has moved beyond Johnston, however, with Baffoni’s selling at farmers markets statewide and working with dozens of restaurants, including Nick’s. The list of customers seems large for a farm tucked away on Greenville Avenue, but the family raises 25,000 chickens and 1,200 turkeys a year – so it’s not quite as small as its Johnston location might indicate. Business is especially booming around Thanksgiving and Christmas, when Baffoni’s brings in seasonal help to meet the demand. That’s in addition to the 18 or so year-round employees.
When people talk about farming in Rhode Island, a lot of attention is paid to aquaculture, given our 40 miles of coastline. But the work being done at Baffoni’s is an important component to the infrastructure needed to support a vibrant food economy, and it is also a healthier, more natural alternative to what you often find on sale in the grocery store.
The “buy local” movement is growing, and if we want to have restaurants with Rhode Island grown and Rhode Island inspired menus, we need all of the ingredients in place.
Bigger and Better
Dave’s Marketplace is one of the great local business stories in Rhode Island. Locally owned and operated since 1969, the market now has nine locations from Cumberland to Quonset. That’s a success story on its own, so when you consider the support that Dave’s offers to other small businesses, it’s a multiplier effect.
During a tour of the recently renovated East Greenwich store, Director of Store Development Bob Fabiano and General Manager Bill Hogan told me that Dave’s works with more than 30 farmers and food manufacturers in the state, including Daniele – the charcuterie company that inspired RI Food Week. During the peak vegetable growing season, the list of vendors found in Dave’s produce aisle is even longer. Hogan says that new farmers are being added constantly, with some farms in Rhode Island selling almost their entire stock to the market. It’s a great symbiotic relationship, and an example of how our small size can work to our advantage. It is feasible for local farmers, even those working on a small scale, to sell produce and other products at Dave’s because there isn’t far to travel at any given location. Farm Fresh RI also works to bridge that gap – handling transportation and delivery for farms to many establishments. When you think about Rhode Island’s culinary landscape, Dave’s should not be discounted on that front, either. The prepared foods, brick oven pizza, sushi and bakery departments turn out fantastic, fresh products daily, and Dave’s continues to offer new foods to customers, both in store and for takeout.
Dave’s employs individuals with culinary experience, some with sales backgrounds and some young people working through school. So when we talk about jobs, Dave’s isn’t exactly a mom and pop operation, despite its roots in the community. In fact, the marketplace accounts for 1,300 jobs in Rhode Island.
Like I said – it’s a real business success story.
The RI Food Week streak of great meals continued at Millonzi’s Bar & Grille, a West Warwick staple run by owner and executive chef Kevin Millonzi. The restaurant is beloved by nearby residents and Rhode Islanders who make the trip to West Warwick solely for the food, but Kevin’s business reaches far beyond the dining room. Much of Kevin’s revenue comes from catering, and in recent years, he has also ventured into venue management. Popular wedding and event locations like the Roger Williams Casino and Galilee Beach Club have contracts with Millonzi’s for catering services, and the restaurant is just another avenue to advertise the larger business. Kevin was gracious enough to step out of the kitchen to talk about small business with myself and a group of state and local officials from West Warwick and Coventry. It was a productive conversation, especially because it takes representation and advocacy at every level to make our state business friendly. From the Town Council’s oversight of zoning to my role in Congress investing in job training and education, we all have a part to play.
The Broadway Experience
Choosing my favorite part of dinner at Nick’s on Broadway would be impossible. The night started by meeting celebrity chef and Food Network star Alton Brown, and ended with an incredible meal made with local ingredients, courtesy of Nick’s owner Derek Wagner. In between, there was a lot of great conversation, especially with oyster farmer Jules Opton-Himmel. Jules walked me through a day in the life at Walrus and Carpenter, and then we got to sample the fruits of his labor – oysters prepared three different ways thanks to Derek. Start to finish, my meal, and my night, was unforgettable.
No Off-Season Here
When I met David Dadekian of eat drink RI, he told me a funny story about Perry Raso, the owner of Matunuck Oyster Bar. Farming oysters is Perry’s dream, a childhood hobby that is in his blood and brought him to URI to study aquaculture and fisheries technology. He recognized after college that opening a restaurant on nearby land would provide an avenue to sustain a career in oyster farming. In many ways, Perry still considers himself more of a farmer than a restaurateur. But despite his reluctance, the Matunuck Oyster Bar has taken off and business is booming. Perry figured he could close down in the winter – the slow season for waterfront restaurants – in order to make renovations and expand.
The off season never came.
Matunuck Oyster Bar has broken the mold for coastal dining. During my recent visit, the sun was shining but the wind was strong and it was still bitterly cold outside – not exactly the ideal conditions for sitting out by the ocean. It was also a Thursday at lunchtime, in the middle of the work day. You could have fooled me. The dining room was busy by anyone’s standards, never mind for a seafood restaurant in February.
The recipe for Perry’s success isn’t just a great menu and a beautiful view of Potter’s Pond. It’s a commitment to locally grown and harvested ingredients. If you want to know where your dinner comes from, you just have to look out the window. Matunuck Oyster Farm supplies what Perry calls the “Pond to Plate” concept, and just up the road, the Matunuck Vegetable Farm grows the herbs and vegetables that accompany your meal. Both in the water and on land, Perry utilizes green technologies that reduce the business’s environmental impact.
It is great to see a business like Matunuck Oyster Bar thriving, and it made for the perfect backdrop to talk about the hospitality industry with business advocates and Chambers of Commerce representatives from South County. I was joined by Myrna George of the South County Tourism Council, Elizabeth Berman of the Southern Rhode Island Chamber, Steve Lombardi of the East Greenwich Chamber, Martha Pughe of the North Kingstown Chamber, Barbara Cardiff of the Greater Westerly Pawcatuck Area Chamber and Jeff Cooke, owner of the Mariner Grille and a board member for the Narragansett Chamber of Commerce.
There are more than 60,000 hospitality jobs in Rhode Island, so these business owners and business advocates represent a significant sector of our economy. We need to work together to support these job creators. I appreciate all of the feedback on the challenges that small businesses face, and how I can be of assistance now and in the future.
On the Dock
You can’t talk about the food economy in Rhode Island without recognizing the integral role that fishermen play. We are known for our food and our restaurants, and a big part of that is the fresh seafood caught off our shores. We are fortunate to get the product literally right off the boat. For those in landlocked states or many countries worldwide, that is not an option. They rely on frozen products to fill their seafood craving, and not surprisingly, much of that comes from coastal communities in America.
In Rhode Island, Seafreeze is one of the major players in frozen fish. In fact, the folks at Seafreeze, Ltd. tell me that they are the largest producer and trader of sea-frozen seafood on the East Coast. The business has been around for more than 30 years, and does justice to Rhode Island’s already-stellar reputation for fresh, quality seafood.
One of the things that stands out from my conversation with company management is that there are potential areas for growth in the fishing and shipping industries, but that infrastructure in some cases cannot support it. The business of freezing and shipping fish requires significant wastewater treatment capacity, and there are some coastal municipalities without the capabilities to accommodate. That is why it is so important to make smart investments in our roads and critical infrastructure like sewers. It is a roadblock that can keep a company like Seafreeze from expanding, and can also prevent a new company from moving here. My hope is that the recent bipartisan passage of a budget is the first step in getting members of Congress to work together, across the aisle. If we find common ground, we can make targeted spending cuts to reduce our deficit and, most importantly, begin investing again in the things that matter most when it comes to rebuilding our economy.
It was great to be back at Seafreeze, and I hope our ongoing conversations will help them continue to grow and add jobs to their workforce in the warehouse and on the water.
Chef Terranova brings over the culinary class to take a photo with Rep. Langevin.
As the co-chair of the Career and Technical Education Caucus, I devote a lot of time and energy to programs that prepare Rhode Islanders, especially young people, for the workforce. And a huge motivation for RI Food Week is the recognition that the food and hospitality industries account for a lot of jobs in our state – more than 60,000 in fact. We need to let people, young and old, know that if they are looking for work, it is a strong career path to follow.
If they are looking for training, Johnson & Wales University is an unparalleled choice.
Overlooking Narragansett Bay on one side and the Providence skyline on the other, the Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence at Johnson & Wales is the center of culinary education in Rhode Island and beyond. Students come from across the country and around the globe, to train with world-class chefs in a first-class facility. The culinary building has 30 state-of-the-art teaching labs, nine hot kitchens, two bake shops, seven pastry labs, two meat-cutting labs, mixology labs and three dining rooms. During my visit to J&W, I was brought to the top-floor dining room with an unbeatable view. Students filled the front and back of the house and the service was as good as any restaurant in Rhode Island. Culinary students prepared sea scallops with stewed leeks and saffron beurre blanc, sous vide loin of lamb with cauliflower puree and a chocolate mousse. Students in the hospitality rotation served the meal and the presentation was flawless.
Best of all was the conversation. I got to meet Dr. Peter Lehmuller, dean of the College of Culinary Arts, who talked about what sets J&W apart. Chef Todd Seyfarth discussed the nutrition program, as did Ellen Manganiello, a wonderful student who is pursuing her dream of a job in the culinary field after a career in technical writing. Senior Vice President Kenneth Levy filled me in on the exciting work being done at the university to better understand the nexus of food and medicine. His work is innovative and I believe will put our state on the map of alternative therapies in healthcare. Chef William Idell is another incredible advocate for the university, and I very much support his vision for creating sustainable agriculture and aquaculture in order to maintain a vibrant food economy. Thanks, too, to Miriam Weinstein, Lisa Pelosi and Barbara Bennett for your help pulling the visit together, and directing a productive, informative discussion.
When you meet chefs, hotel managers and other hospitality workers in Rhode Island and around the world, it is not uncommon to hear them say that they were trained at Johnson & Wales. There are other graduates who leave Rhode Island to open restaurants or find work elsewhere, and I do not want to see that trend increase. Let’s give our culinary and hospitality students a reason to stay. Better yet, let’s create a food economy so strong that they wouldn’t even consider leaving.
I am so proud to have J&W here in Rhode Island, and I look forward to working with the team there to further promote our food economy and the exceptional talent pool that is coming out of our state.
Farm to Family to Table
In speaking with food industry leaders, there is a company whose name consistently comes up: Narragansett Creamery.
They are collaborating with Daniele, Inc. Dozens of the state’s best restaurants use Narragansett Creamery cheeses, from Al Forno to Weekapaug Inn, and into Massachusetts and New York. All of the Farmers Markets want a Narragansett Creamery booth. Every business I have visited so far on this RI Food Week tour responds positively when I tell them that Narragansett Creamery is one of the stops. After meeting the Federico family, I can see why.
Mark and Pattie Federico started Narragansett Creamery in 2007 under the name Providence Specialty Products. The products have since taken off, and Narragansett Creamery can boast growth even in a difficult economy. Their feta cheese was recognized as best in the nation, and their ricotta as best in the world. They attribute some of that success to their willingness to evolve. They understand the demands of their customers and often add new products to the line-up. They understand the increasing demand for fresh, locally-sourced products, so Narragansett Creamery uses local milk. The list of ingredients in their cheeses is surprisingly short because their products are fresh and natural.
Narragansett Creamery is also proactive in engaging existing customers and seeking out new ones. They attend local markets and work with Rhode Island retailers to get their products on as many shelves as they can. They have more than 1,500 followers on Twitter, and keep their customers informed of new products through Facebook. They leave no stone unturned when it comes to getting the word out on their cheese, yogurt and spreads. Anecdotally, I can say after meeting Mark Federico Sr. and Jr. that Narragansett Creamery’s success probably has something to do with the family, too. To put it simply, they are just good, warm people who work very hard at what they do, and it shows.
Jerry Bucci and Rep. Langevin check out the processing plant at Warwick Ice Cream.
There is a lot of buzz surrounding food startups in Rhode Island, and seeing new business – and new jobs – appear on the scene is good news for everyone. But that growth cannot, and should not, replace the institutions that have been around for decades. Take one look at Warwick Ice Cream, and you can guess that they’re not exactly the new guy on the block.
Warwick Ice Cream was established in 1930 in an art deco building that predates most of its neighbors on Route 2. Chain restaurants and box stores have appeared over time, but Warwick Ice Cream has been a constant. Charles Bucci was an Italian immigrant with experience making gelato. He wanted to parlay that into a career in his new home, so he founded Warwick Ice Cream. Today, traffic whizzes by, but inside, the process is largely unchanged from when the Bucci family set up shop. It’s a rare thing to see a business, and a process, that is rooted in tradition thriving in an era when many manufacturers ship jobs overseas and rely on either cheap labor or machines that replace employees. That isn’t the case in Warwick. They have more than two dozen employees, and when you go into the warehouse, you will see them filling cardboard half-pint containers and packaging them for shipment. Business has picked up over the past year, and Warwick Ice Cream products are finding their way into more and more stores. They are shipping to retailers nationally and, thinking outside the box, they offer co-packaging opportunities.
And upstairs in the office, another generation of Bucci is busy overseeing it all.
The arcade providence is a landmark that many Rhode Islanders cherish, so when the building was brought back to life, it was definitely a reason to celebrate. Rogue Island is another reason. After the Food Week kickoff at Daniele, I invited the speakers and David Dadekian of eat drink RI to join me at the arcade’s new restaurant. Rogue Island hasn’t had their official opening yet, but if there were any kinks still to work out, they certainly weren’t evident to me. The atmosphere is great, and they already appear to have a strong following, with a good lunch crowd even on a Monday holiday. The best part of this business is that their dishes are full of locally-sourced ingredients. What’s more, the owners and chef decided to promote that buy local mentality and give credit to the farms right on the menu. You can eat chicken from Baffoni’s Poultry Farm in Johnston or pork from Blackbird Farm in Smithfield. It’s a great way to support other Rhode Island businesses, and a great way to remind all of us that we don’t need to go far to have a great meal made with quality, fresh ingredients.
Moving on Up
When I went to Dave’s Marketplace in August to talk about their collaboration with a local manufacturer, I had no idea how that one visit would blossom. That day, I met Davide Dukcevich, someone I now consider a friend, who told me about his business in Burrillville. Unbeknownst to so many Rhode Islanders – myself included at the time – Davide is running a massive operation up there. Daniele employs more than 300 people, with more jobs on the way, not to mention the construction jobs resulting from the $60 million expansion that is currently underway.
Clearly, Daniele is a company to watch.
The great thing is, they’re not the only ones.
One of the things that was highlighted in that meeting with Davide is that Rhode Island has a reputation nationwide as a food destination. We have so many fantastic food industries here, from the 1,200 working farms to our award-winning restaurants. And what’s more, those businesses are fueled by our state’s incredible culinary talent coming from Johnson & Wales University, and even high school programs like the one at the Cranston Area Career and Technical Center. The infrastructure is here. We have so many of the pieces.
Now, we just have to connect the dots.
Rhode Island is poised to do even better things in this area, and I want to help the food tourism movement here continue to thrive and grow. So instead of shaking hands with Davide and going our separate ways, that day’s discussion continued and is now evolving into something bigger. Together, at Daniele’s expanded manufacturing plant, we kicked off Food Week with a fantastic line-up of speakers. Davide shared his family’s story – the classic pursuit of the American Dream. Dale Venturini from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association talked about the tools out there to help small businesses grow. Jesse Rye from Farm Fresh Rhode Island talked about the commitment of Rhode Island consumers and chefs to using local products – and how that commitment could revolutionize agriculture in our state. Allan Tear from Rally Rhode Island shared his vision of a food start-up revolution in the Ocean State, a dream he says is well within reach.
And as for me, I see my role as bringing these ideas together. Davide, Dale, Jesse, Allan – these are the leaders and the opportunity-makers who are going to bring this idea to fruition. I am proud to know them, and I truly hope that together we can make good things happen in Rhode Island. During Food Week, and I hope well into the future, I am going to seek out other food industry leaders and learn about their businesses. I look forward to hearing about the challenges they face, and better yet, what I can do to help them overcome those obstacles.
A lot of attention is paid to Rhode Island’s shortcomings, but this is a bright spot we can all be proud of, and that’s what Food Week is about. Let’s eat!
Langevin Gets a Taste of Rhode Island’s Food Economy
Congressman Jim Langevin (D-RI) will embark Monday on a tour of the food-related businesses that have garnered the Ocean State a reputation as a foodie destination. Inspired by Davide Dukcevich, the co-owner of Daniele, Inc., this tour will allow Langevin to meet leaders from agriculture, hospitality, manufacturing and food sales, and discuss what tools they need to be successful and to help Rhode Island’s food economy grow.
“When I met Davide back in August, he talked about the possibility of branding Rhode Island as the ‘Silicon Valley of Food’,” Langevin said. “That concept resonated with me, and I believe that the business savvy, enthusiasm and determination of individuals like Davide can make that idea a reality. I look forward to visiting a variety of businesses and hearing their suggestions for putting Rhode Island on the culinary map.”
The tour gets underway on Monday, February 17, 2014, at 11 a.m., at Daniele’s Burrillville location currently under construction. Along with Congressman Langevin, speakers at the kickoff include Davide Dukcevich, Jesse Rye of Farm Fresh Rhode Island, Dale Venturini of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and Melissa Withers of Rally Rhode Island.
Guests and press attending the kickoff will be asked to wear hard hats and should not wear high-heeled shoes.
DATE: MONDAY, FEBRUARY 17
WHAT: Kickoff Press Conference
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Daniele, Inc.
1000 Daniele Drive, Burrillville
WHAT: Lunch with kickoff partners and restaurant owners
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: Rogue Island
the arcade providence
130 Westminster Street, Providence
DATE: TUESDAY, FEBRUARY 18
WHAT: Visit to Warwick Ice Cream
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: 743 Bald Hill Road, Warwick
WHAT: Visit to Narragansett Creamery
WHEN: 2:15 p.m.
WHERE: 33 Dearborn Street, Providence
WHAT: Visit to United Foods
WHEN: 3:15 p.m.
WHERE: 313 Iron Horse Way, Providence
DATE: WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 19
WHAT: Lunch at Johnson & Wales University
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Cuisinart Center for Culinary Excellence, Johnson & Wales
333 Shipyard Street, Providence
DATE: THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 20
WHAT: Visit to Seafreeze
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: 100 Davisville Road, North Kingstown
WHAT: Lunch with representatives from Chambers of Commerce in South County
WHEN: 12:30 p.m.
WHERE: Matunuck Oyster Bar
629 Succotash Road, South Kingstown
WHAT: Pawtuxet Village Farmers Market
WHEN: 5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Edgewood Congregational Church
1788 Broad Street, Cranston
DATE: FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 21
WHAT: Lunch with restaurant owner and local officials to discuss food economy
WHEN: 12 p.m.
WHERE: Millonzi’s Bar & Grille
11 Curson Street, West Warwick
WHAT: Visit to Dave’s Marketplace
WHEN: 1:45 p.m.
WHERE: 1000 Division Road, East Greenwich
WHAT: Visit to Baffoni’s Poultry Farm
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: 324 Greenville Avenue, Johnston
DATE: SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 22
WHAT: South Kingstown Farmers Market
WHEN: 11 a.m.
WHERE: Peace Dale Mill Complex
1425 Kingstown Road, Peacedale
WHAT: Visit to Sons of Liberty Spirits Co.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: Peace Dale Mill Complex
1425 Kingstown Road, Peacedale
WHAT: Visit to ShelaLara Vineyards & Winery
WHEN: 1 p.m.
WHERE: 21-B Reservoir Road, Coventry
WHAT: Visit to Verde Vineyards
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: 50 Hopkins Avenue, Johnston
DATE: MONDAY, FEBRUARY 24
WHAT: Visit to Cranston Area Career & Technical Center culinary program
WHEN: 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: 100 Metropolitan Avenue, Cranston