Providence Business News: “This Dining Style is a Gas”

We have just about every style of dining out available here in our snack-sized state (as Food & Wine recently referred to Rhode Island). Food icon Julia Child was asked during one of her many visits here what was lacking in eclectic restaurant options. The year was 2000 and there was a gathering in what was then Davio’s in the Biltmore now the Graduate. She considered the question and then in “that” voice replied, “Fine Dining – Chinese!” And of course she was prophetic – in 2011, Jacky’s Waterplace came on the scene just steps from where Julia Child was speaking and took its place as the first fine-dining Pan Asian restaurant in the state.
There are not many dining concepts that are represented or at least have not been attempted in our state.

One of the last ones is about to be realized.

In the far-flung regions of New Jersey and Pennsylvania, there is one word that will bring a smile to foodies on all levels. The word is – Wawa.

Wawa is a chain of convenience stores – gas stations, to be precise – located along the East Coast from New Jersey to Florida. Started in the mid-60s, the chain evolved into an option for to-go lunch items especially “hoagies” – “Grinders” in Rhode Island-speak. Of course the signature Philly Cheesesteak was at the top of the menu and was the foundation of a menu of sandwiches that evolved into custom-made creations. Quality improved as popularity increased and by the early 2000’s there was a cult-like following of foodies. With the advent of social media, word spread far and wide about the freshness, quality and craft of the menu and the reputation spread.

That reputation and experience is about to take its place in the crowded Rhode Island food scene. A start-up convenience food and fuel brand began quietly in the strange new world of 2021. Neon Marketplace opened its first location in Middletown with multiple fuel pumps and a spacious retail coffee shop/deli/convenience food market. It quickly developed a following for quality grab-and-go food. The company brought in longtime restaurant personality and executive Bahjat Shariff who put the Panera Bread cafes on the map in the state back in 2000. Shariff had left to run a burger concept in New Mexico but wanted to return to the Ocean State. He joined Neon and saw an opportunity. He is joined by some personalities with a fresh outlook and vision.

Elise Babey is a food developer who joined Neon from Florida with a clear focus on an open lane in the food scene around here. She and the Neon team are developing a number of unique approaches to some popular casual food choices. The first is a fresh take on pizza. Being rolled out at the Neon locations in Rhode Island and Seekonk is a new style square pizza. Babey says, “Square is the new black. This is going to be our signature creation.” The shape is just the beginning. The pizza style is a cross between a Sicilian and Roman style. The pie measures 9 by 13 inches – rectangular as opposed to square is more accurate. The dough is fluffy. It is proofed – allowed to rise – like bakery pizza, the Rhode Island “party pizza.” The dough ball at the foundation is locally made. The pizza after it is topped is baked in a brick oven which gives a crispy bottom crust and is one of the most distinguishing features. The toppings are unique as well with combinations such as chicken with hot honey and mozzarella cheese and a Market Special with slices of tomato, banana pepper, black olives, leaves of arugula, sausage and pepperoni with a mozzarella blanket. Babey stressed that only trained “pizza pros” are allowed to use the ovens. The pizzas are unique and first quality especially for takeout. Babey says this is the key. “We want to break the mold of what people think of so-called ‘convenience store food,” she says. “Our consumer who wants upscale coffee in the morning and an artisan sandwich or salad at lunch, then orders from a restaurant on their way home is going to find all those things here.” To give value for money may be a sound idea in these inflationary times when so many are cutting back on portion sizes to hold a perceived lower price point.”

Another simple fact in foodservice is, restaurants with limited dining space can deploy labor to the kitchen or to service to speed up order time and assist staff. Although Shariff appears to still be able to attract loyal staff as he did with his bakery cafes. The location in Warwick appeared to have a full complement of busy employees.

Neon has some ambitious plans especially in these times. The outlook for the company is to open no less than six more locations between Cape Cod and Connecticut in the coming months.

– Bruce Newbury