What’s in the Fridge?

Last December, Motif wrote an article about the community fridges popping up around the state, including the Refri, the community refrigerator outside New Urban Arts (motifri.com/communityfridge).

Since the article, the Refri has remained open and available. I recently talked to a young woman carrying a giant box of food who said, “I read about the Refri on Instagram and I had some food, so I brought it,” as she stocked the fridge with half of a pantry full of soup, macaroni, and bread. A man asked me for a dollar, and when I asked him if he knew about the Refri, he replied, “You mean the best thing to ever happen to Providence?” 

The contents of the refrigerator vary. Often, there is produce delivered by locals or people from Farm Fresh Rhode Island. Sometimes there are socks and scarves, bagels and breads, and maxi pads. Many evenings, there are complete meals prepared by Urban Greens, Refri’s neighbor.

Urban Greens is another group that has been doing a lot to help the community stay fed. Every Friday, some of the 2,834 members volunteer to prepare ingredients for the Culinary Academy, the YMCA’s youth cooking program. They prepare meals for up to 900 recipients of the Calvary Baptist Church. They assemble ingredients for “the little guys” whose parents pick up the ingredients for the YMCA Fun & Food club virtual cooking class. Says John Santos, general manager of Urban Greens, “There are so many volunteers to thank. It has been incredible.”   

Knocking it Off and Shutting it Down

A few local businesses took the safety of their employees, customers and community so seriously that they kept things locked down even when state officials began to lift restrictions.

Frog and Toad, located at 795 Hope Street (they do have a second location on Westminster but it’s currently closed) has yet to reopen for in-person shopping, so adapted to being not only an online shop, but also allowing for pick-ups. If you don’t know the shop by name, you’ve definitely seen their products around. They kicked off the pandemic by printing Gina Raimondo’s favorite press conference slogan “Knock it off” on a t-shirt. The design, made by Maret Bondorew, paired with another local business, Parched, and 20% of its proceeds went to Rhode Island COVID relief. They’re since expanded into offering merch to show off that you’re vaccinated, including sweatpants that have “VACCINATED” written across the ass, and they do a lot of work to partner with local organizations to give back. frogandtoadstore.com; @frogandtoadstore 

Many Rhode Islanders held their breath until Wildflour, a vegan bakery in Pawtucket, reopened last summer after shutting down at the beginning of the pandemic. Once it did, many ran to it, gleeful to find their treats back and ready for them. Wildflour has handled the pandemic like a boss. Indoor dining has been closed since the initial shut down (on nice days you can sit outside) and they have set up a clearly-marked pathway through the store. You enter, look in the food cases, make your order, pay and walk out a different door. Drinks are made to order, and you wait outside for them. The whole process is quick, painless, and feels incredibly safe. You can also do online ordering so that you can pick-up without waiting. wildflourbakerycafe.com; @wildflourveganbakery 

Riffraff, the bookstore and bar that’s every book lover’s dream, has been incredibly in their handling of the pandemic. They still don’t allow people into their shop, but do allow book pick-up as well as outdoor browsing and cocktails. They also have surprise book care packages, curated by Riffraff staff based on your favorite books, and their recommendations are always on point. riffraffpvd.com; @riffraffpvd 

Tallulah’s Taqueria, located at 146 Ives Street and a contender for the best taco in Providence, took their takeout-friendly restaurant and adapted it for pandemic safety. They closed their patios and kept them closed for the past year, and turned their operation into a to-go window. Ordering ahead is effortless with their website, which is recommended because they have been busy at peak times. Safe takeout, delicious tacos, and a semblance of normalcy. tallulahstaqueria.com; @tallulahstacos 

Beating the Pandemic with Providence Bagels

Chris Wietecha, owner of Providence Bagel, did not let the pandemic get him down. From the onset of the coronavirus, Wietecha was prepared to help. “My wife works in health care and was on the front lines when the pandemic first happened. She came home and was totally stressed out—they’re at work, they’re not eating, they’re struggling just to stay afloat. Meanwhile, I also saw local businesses struggling, so I thought: If I can get people to donate money, we’ll buy gift cards and we’ll give them directly to healthcare workers so they can have lunch.”

On April 2, 2020, Wietecha partnered with Jim Nellis and Robin Dionne to launch the first of several RI Feeds Our Heroes campaigns, raising more than $30k that went directly to restaurants for gift cards. In addition, Providence Bagel donated another $1,500 in gift cards without accepting any of the money themselves. 

“I knew there were plenty of other people who needed it more than us,” Wietecha explained. “I guess that’s just who I am. And it worked out fine! Maybe it was some sort of karma,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to gift cards and bagels, Wietecha also opened his restaurant for a “Doomsday Drive-Thru” initiative, allowing businesses with no retail space to pop up at Providence Bagels in the evenings. “We gave up our restaurant/facility so that businesses who’d been popping up elsewhere pre-pandemic — at farmers’ markets, breweries, etc. — could continue operating their business at no cost. As long as they cleaned up and respected the space, I didn’t set too many parameters.” Some of the local businesses that used the space include Dips Dips, Basil and Bunny, Wally’s Hot Dog Cart, Dump Truck, Bobby’s Bar Pizza and Lost Boys Taco Shop

“From day one, our biggest priority has been helping the community. We work with the Elisha Project, giving away our extras to them at the end of every day. We never throw stuff away,” Wietecha said. Currently, they are offering Girl Scout Cookie Inspired Coffees, and will donate money from those drinks back to the Girl Scouts.

“At the end of the day it just goes to show that this is a strong community. Through all the things this country has had this year, people can still come together like this, when we need it most.”

@providencebagel; providencebagel.com

Open and Closed


White Electric: 711 Westminster St, PVD. Just in time for May Day, this Providence favorite has been taken over by the workers and reopened its doors. You love to see it. See story page XX.

Kow Kow: 120 Ives St, PVD. kowkowfood.com. Originally a food truck owned and operated by a former medical student, this bubble waffle and ice cream parlor opened in Fox Point last month. 

Needle and Thread: 45 Peck St, PVD. needlenthreadpvd.com. Occupying what used to be a former tailor shop and haberdashery (and not too far from where the Red Fez used to be) this modern speakeasy provides small/large plates and intimate conversation.

Helado Taiyaki: 102 Dean St, PVD. Another desert place just in time for the sultry New England summer months, it adds a Latin twist to a Japanese desert: soft serve ice cream flavors in fish shaped cones full of custard. 

PiANTA: 65 Bath St, PVD. piantaveganrestaurant.com. The latest in the burgeoning local galaxy of vegan restaurants, this plant food eatery is dedicated to recreating familiar flavors with exquisite twists sourced from local suppliers. It’s actually part of a new “cloud kitchen,” which means only takeout and delivery is available.

Yeye: 64 Barh St, PVD. eatyeye.com. Latin fusion and vegan friendly takeout. Like PiANTA above, it’s a cloud kitchen open for delivery or takeout only. 

Feed the Cheeks: 182 Wayland Ave, PVD. feedthecheeks.com. This dessert bakery specializes in thick chocolate chip cookies, in flavors both traditional and innovative.

Do You Take Democracy with Your Coffee?: White Electric takes on a radical new experiment

A Providence favorite reopened its doors on May 1 under new ownership. White Electric has been a Westminster Street mainstay for years. Like many other local businesses, in the last year it’s been the victim of intermittent hours, COVID regulations and state-mandated lockdowns and pauses. Now it’s back for good, and the workers have transformed it into the state’s first workers’ cooperative coffee shop and a radical experiment in workplace democracy.

“It’s about having a meaningful impact in your workplace, having an actual voice and an actual say in how your workplace should be run,” said Danny Cordova, a member of CUPS Cooperative Inc, the workers cooperative that now owns the shop. The cooperative was born out of the original service workers union White Electric workers created last year. White Electric is now the first workers cooperative coffee shop in the city and the state. “We live in a democracy. We vote for our representatives, we vote for senators, we vote for a president and why can’t we do the same thing [at work]? We can’t vote for CEOs, we can’t vote for managers, and you can get fired for any reason,” continued Cordova.

Under the new cooperative structure, there’s no single owner of the business. Each worker is also an owner with equal say in how it is run. There are no managers, and no one is above anyone else in the workplace. Day-to-day operations behind the counter were largely self-directed before it became a cooperative, as all the worker-owners draw from a rich past experience in food service. Much of the division of labor for them now comes from tasks that management or owners typically would do.

“Working in a cafe is not inherently a menial job, there’s no reason for it not to be a respectful  job,” said Amanda Soule, another worker-owner of the cooperative. “People don’t respect coffee shop workers generally, and I think that that is often inherent in the structure of the cafe itself.” 

White Electric’s workers didn’t originally intend to form a cooperative. Last year the shop closed due to COVID restrictions, and reopened in June. In the interim, George Floyd was murdered and protests for racial justice were kicking off everywhere. Inspired by the movement, White Electric’s workers started reaching out to managers about workplace issues. Then-employees also wrote an internal letter asking for diverse hiring practices, anti-racism, sick pay and wheelchair access to the shop, among other requests. 

Management soon after laid off a lot of the workers. In response, workers started to organize and form a union. “[We wanted] to make sure people’s jobs would be protected beyond any of us as individuals and to make sure the things we had been asking for would actually be implemented,” said Chloe Chassaing, a worker-owner.

Workers received a lot of community support at this time as they formed the union, and much of the customer base of White Electric are fellow service workers. White Electric’s then-owners voluntarily recognized the union. In August, the union performed a card check so that it would be officially recognized by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). That same night, the owners sent out an email listing White Electric for sale.

But the owners were willing to sell to a worker’s cooperative, which was one of the suggestions workers made in they letter they wrote earlier in the year. Efforts to form a union changed gears entirely to start a cooperative. CUPS started raising money that autumn. A GoFundMe with the explicit mission of turning White Electric into a workers’ cooperative raised $25,000, and other funding came from bank loans. For months, it was not clear the shop would become a cooperative, with CUPS only reaching a sale agreement this past January. Closing date was mid-April, and the cooperative has been rushing to get the necessary permits to reopen.

The cooperative started with eight worker-owners. When White Electric announced they were hiring, they got more than 60 applicants in the first three days, seemingly defying the current popular media narrative of people preferring to stay on unemployment. The worker owners have pledged to pay above minimum wage, but see workplace democracy and culture as integral to its attractiveness for prospective employees.

“It’s not that people don’t want to go back to a food service job, it’s that people don’t want to go back to being disrespected by their employers and their customers every day,” said Soule. “There’s a bunch of people we interviewed on unemployment because they know this is a different kind of work environment.”

Any new employees will be tried out for six months before receiving the full share of ownership in the cooperative. The system for pay increases in the past left a lot of inequities, and the cooperative intends to make the process transparent and fair. In addition to base pay and tips, each worker-owner of the cooperative is entitled to a share of the money left over every year. But as with any new business, it might take a year or two before that happens. Worker-owners can also expect a set schedule, as opposed to some of the flexible schedules found in most mainstream coffee shops.

“We just work as a team, and that’s been a very winning strategy for a very long time,” said Cordova.

True North: The story of North restaurant’s response to COVID

“As a restaurant, we’ve never made any money … ever. So [the pandemic’s financial strain] is less scary because we’re used to the task of running at the edge of a broken system. I don’t want to exploit people or put up financial barriers for customers to access the experience/culture we’re creating. And that’s always been my choice.”

James Mark, the owner of north restaurant and big king tells the story of the year 2020. He took action before the state required it and remained steadfast in his resolve to remain take-out only, even when the state opened again (and then closed again). I recently spoke with him about how his values and his business coexisted in the midst of a pandemic. 

“The year 2020 started really, really well for us. January and February had much better sales than in years past. We’ve spent the last eight years building and expanding — each year it was something new — so it felt like finally it was going to be a good year.

“We were paying attention to what was happening in Europe and Asia, and the severity caught me off guard. We all kind of thought, ‘Yeah, that would suck, but I’m not too worried about it.’

“Then you start seeing the death tolls, and it becomes serious.

“Three days before the state shut everything down, I was working at big king on the floor. I remember talking to guests — students at Brown — who were interested in sake. Then later that night I was looking on the computer at the news and saw confirmed cases at Brown University — and that’s when it hit.”

Mark’s restaurant model is built around face-to-face seating. “That’s intentional,” he explained, “because we believe in human connections. But this is an airborne virus and it’s incredibly dangerous for myself and my staff. That night we shut everything down. We did double our normal business that night, but there was no other choice. 

“We took a week to decompress and think about what being closed means. I immediately got everyone into unemployment before the system got overloaded.

“After a week, Andrew, my chef at north, asked, ‘How do you feel about takeout?’ We knew we wanted to do takeout, and there was a ton of support [in the community] for it, but it was scary because around town you’d see lines of people forming. We didn’t want that, so we scheduled pick-ups so there was only one pick-up every 15 minutes. This helped us feel more comfortable from a community safety standpoint.

“This approach also let us run the restaurant with fewer people — not so we could save costs, but so we could spread people out. It just made sense on a whole bunch of safety levels.”

They started their takeout format with a small menu for big king. “After we realized it was working,” Mark said, “we started the same system at north. We rehired about 80% of our full-time staff, keeping them at pre-COVID wages or higher. That’s huge for us, and we’re proud of that.”

Regarding future plans, James Mark says, “Fifty percent of our staff is vaccinated. By summer, hopefully 100% will be. But it’s still tricky, indoor dining. I have questions surrounding community spread. Do I want to be responsible if a spread event happens among guests, even if my staff are safe? It seems unlikely that big king can open, but north, maybe in the summer we can take over the parking spots in front [on Fountain St.] That will allow us to do a lot.”

In addition, north has always included a financial contribution as part of their business model. When their sales decreased due to COVID, the north and big king team still found ways to give back.

“In 2013 I read a book by the original owner of Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, Anthony Myint, and his wife, Karen. Part of what Mission did was collect 25 cents on every dish they sold, and they donated it to the local food bank. He talked about using his business to affect the community in a positive way — that it could be more than just a transaction between customer and business owner. I found it eye opening. So from the beginning, a portion of sales from each plate went to the Amos House or the food bank.

“During COVID I got involved with activist groups in the city, and learned that there are hungry people downtown every weekend who aren’t benefiting from non-profits. It got me thinking: There are multiple levels of hunger that need to be addressed, and it inspired me to do something. For the last eight months, we’ve been cooking 50 to 60 meals every Monday and walking them down to Kennedy Plaza. This doesn’t address underlying problems and conditions, but if the work we do is a Band-Aid, people still need a Band-Aid.”

When I asked Mark if he’s accepting donations for the Monday meals, he said yes, but his most important suggestion was to “organize yourselves. Meet your neighbors. If you band together with your neighbors, can you address an issue in your neighborhood? Learn to talk to your neighbors. We’re simultaneously more connected and less connected than ever before.”

At the end of the story, it all comes down to values. Here are James Mark’s top three. 

“It’s important to not devalue the work that people do in the restaurant industry. Paying our staff a real wage has always been important to me.

“Second is the culture, and the work that produces culture: food that facilitates conversation, inspires new things, opens people up to try new things and leaves them feeling happy.

“But we value, number one, the people who work for us. They give their time and their life to the restaurant. The first thing in my head when deciding how to do takeout was, ‘How do we keep ourselves safe?’ If no one dies, no one’s family gets sick, then I’ve won. I’ve beat this pandemic. There’s no dollar value to assign to someone’s life, and I will always put them first.” 

Up and Coming in Cumberland: Vegan and CBD specialties abound at Blackstone Herbs and Coffee Bar

Calling my coffee, tea and CBD lovers out there, there’s a coffee shop you have to check out: Blackstone Herbs and Coffee Bar in Cumberland. This new shop is located on Broad Street and focuses on locally sourced vegan eats, coffee, and small-batch CBD that can be put into their variety of drinks, as well as CBD products you can purchase and take home. 

When you go into the shop, it’s like stepping into a wonderland that’s focused on delicious drinks, specialty food (they have gluten-free options and it’s all vegan!) and a playground all combined. I grabbed a lavender and chamomile iced tea, had them put some CBD in it, and sat in a swing while – not even kidding – flipping through their copy of Motif. While I didn’t sit in the shop long due to COVID-19, the drink was one of my favorite things; the blend was perfect for a warm spring day.  Then I, a person with no chill, felt relaxed and calm after the CBD hit my system. I couldn’t get the shop – or the drink – out of my head, and when I found out more about them, felt myself falling even more in love. 

The shop has four owners (two sets of couples) who met while working at The Cheesecake Factory in Providence back in 2015. They are Eddy and Christian, and Bryanna and Gian. According to Christian they would, “… always hang out after work, dreaming of owning our own businesses.” 

Each of the owners brought something different to the shop: Bryanna and Gian had experience in the hemp plant industry, as well as plenty of exposure with it after traveling the country. Eddy and Christian have traveled the globe, always in search of a good cup of coffee. The two couples combined made a perfect formula for the new shop. 

Against all odds, in summer 2020 (seriously, the middle of COVID!) they came together and decided to take their hard work, experiences, love for what they do, and their friendship to open Blackstone Herbs and Coffee Bar. Christian says, “We knew and believed in each other’s vision and business and came together.”

What makes this shop unique is that not only is it delicious, it’s also vegan AND they specialize in CBD. (CBD being short for Cannabidiol, which is the second most active ingredient in cannabis, but is fully legal). Owners Bryanna and Gian own a 10-acre farm where they grow hemp plants that allow them to make small-batch CBD products. This is the CBD that you can have added to any drink (at an insanely affordable price) at the shop. The two also just opened another CBD store in Providence at the beginning of April. 

Eddy and Christian have been vegan since 2015. Eddy says, “It’s really just become a lifestyle at this point. I’m glad the cafe is completely vegan. We are planning to evolve our food menu as we grow, and we’re excited to share with everyone how great everything will taste!” According to Eddy and Christian, it’s not just about being vegan. “It’s about a making better, conscious choice for the soul, body and mind. It ties to making better choices for the planet, too. By being a globally low impact establishment, not only are our products plant-based, but so is our to-go wear, straws and cups.” They also partner with other establishments to bring in baked goods. They’ve featured items from Blush Bakery and Miss Vegan.

The two couples settled their shop in Cumberland not only because Eddy and Christian have made it a home, but because they felt the area had a need for a café like this, and I’m so glad they did. 

The shop is located at 3 Dexter Street, and while they have no parking lot, street parking is free in Cumberland. The shop is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 am – 3 pm and you can find out more on their website at blackstoneherbsandcoffeebar.com or on Instagram at @blackstoneherbsandcoffeebar or Facebook at Facebook.com/blackstoneherbscoffeebar.

You Wanna Pizza Me?: A Guy and His Pie brings pizza with pizzazz to PVD!

If you’ve been tooling around Rhode Island foodstagrams in the past few months, there’s no way you haven’t come across A Guy and His Pie and their amazingly mouthwatering pizza photography! What began as a therapeutic way to beat quarantine boredom (and pivot from decidedly #basic sourdough bread making) turned into a fantastic business, bringing Detroit-style pies to PVD. You can expect a soft and airy crust with a bit of a crunch, plus those drool-worthy caramelized edges of cheesy goodness, but prepare yourself to be pleasantly surprised by the array of creative and ever-changing topping offerings such as:

The Birria Pizza: This collab with Providence’s Masa Taqueria was inspired by the South of the Border sensation, the Birria Taco, and features a flavorful medley of onion, cilantro, lime juice, mozzarella, beef birria, and of course, plenty of consommé for dipping!

The Pistachio Pesto: Go green with this delish twist on the classic Italian basil sauce, amped up a couple notches with crunchy pistachios! It’s the perfect pizza to ring in the warm days of spring.

The Pepperoni & Hot Honey: I know what you’re thinking: “It’s just pepperoni pizza!” However, the addition of a drizzle of spicy honey is all it takes to elevate this fan favorite from “yawn” to “yum”!

No matter which pie or slice you choose, A Guy and His Pie will surely have a pizza your heart after just one bite! 

Follow @a_guy_and_his_pie on Instagram to see where they’ll be poppin’ up next!

No Gluten? No Problem.

Hidden behind a little red door in Pawtucket, Craft Burgers and Beer (342 East Ave) is a gem for gluten-free eaters. This South of the Border burger decorated with fresh jalapeños, guacamole and  jack cheese is covered in an avocado crème fraîche that makes this a decadent entree with just the right amount of kick. Paired with the quality gluten-free bun and Craft’s mashed potatoes without gravy, this substantial meal is one that I often revisit.

Rhody Gluten-Free

This is the gluten-free “Four Cheesy” pasta at Bettola, located in Cranston’s Rolfe Square. The smoked gouda, mozzarella, pecorino and fior de latte blend perfectly to create a unique and creamy flavor that does not overpower the penne. The grilled chicken was the perfect complement to this hearty dish. Their entire menu of pizzas, pastas and more was clearly labeled for gluten-free patrons.