There’s an exciting new business developing in downtown Warren, and if you are a food service professional, dream of becoming one, or just like the idea of having greater access to a wide variety of locally produced, organic food, you’ll want to pay attention.
Hope & Main, a unique marriage of a not-for-profit business incubator and local economic engine, has introduced itself as a work-in-progress to the local business community. The buzz around the unique community development initiative is palpable – and yes, palatable.
Located in the former Main Street School, Hope & Main’s mission is both wide reaching and tightly focused. It will be a space where local chefs, food producers and nutrition professionals will be able to lease commercial kitchen space. A planned town market will provide ready access to locally produced food products, as well as provide a venue for local producers to introduce and showcase their products.
Over the next year, Hope & Main will be making historically sensitive yet state-of-the-art modifications to the 1916 Main Street School, including the addition of a rear elevator, to transform the space to one that may serve the needs of food service professionals from caterers and specialty food producers to farmers and fishermen. In addition to the market and four large commercial kitchens and a rentable demonstration kitchen, plans include cold and dry storage, a rentable community space for events and seminars, and a business center to provide members with marketing and sales support.
Lisa Raiola is Hope & Main’s Founder and Executive Director. Her energy and enthusiasm for this venture are contagious – but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the idea for Hope & Main itself was born of Raiola’s own battle and recovery from a serious illness. A long-time public health professional, Raiola turned to nutrition on her path to recovery, and she credits clean, organic, local food for her good health today. But at the time she was ill, Whole Foods in Providence was her only source for the types of foods she needed to regain her health, and access was difficult. “Good food is not a luxury,” she says. “It’s absolutely essential to our basic quality of life.”
For Raiola, recovery meant getting back to work, and perhaps parlaying her newfound appreciation for recovery through nutrition into a new business venture. She thought of creating a business that would deliver meals to homebound people with special dietary needs and was in the process of researching a property at the Town Hall when she met Caroline Wells, the Warren Town Planner. Wells thought she had a property that might interest Raiola, and brought her to see the Main Street School. According to Raiola, “it was a little bigger than what I had in mind.”
Still, the wonderful location got her wheels spinning. In meetings with Warren’s Economic Development Board, the same “wish list” items kept cropping up.
“How do we best use our natural resources? We have farmland, a waterfront, a great downtown. They wanted to incorporate food, family and fun, and revitalize Warren as a destination,” she says. “I had this thought – that I actually thought I came up with – that we have a business incubator that revolves around food. So I Googled ‘kitchen incubator’ and it turns out that there are several around the country, just not in Rhode Island.”
So the concept of Hope & Main was born as a true public/private partnership. Hope & Main will lease the building from the town of Warren, and share any profits over and above operating costs with the town. Those profits will not go in the general fund but will rather be reinvested in economic development initiatives. According to Raiola, “We can create a true local food system here…the local food movement is central to the community, and it has been really special to have the support of this community. Warren has really shared ownership of this vision.”
Funds for the renovations are coming in part from federal sources: a substantial HUD Community Development Block Grant will cover the cost of the elevator addition, while a USDA Community Facilities Grant earmarked to support value-added agriculture will finance the kitchen equipment. Additional funding is coming from the RI Economic Development Corporation, and FarmFresh RI. Raiola hopes to raise additional funds over the summer, break ground in the fall, and have a “soft” opening of the kitchen incubator spaces in the spring. By the fall of 2012, she hopes to complete the process with the debut of the town market, making life in Warren that much more delicious – and healthy.