Providence Journal: “Gas Up”

Brick oven pizza, made-to-order sandwiches on fresh New England breads, espresso drinks and nitro taps, brewed ice tea, ice cream shakes, breakfast sandwiches and doughnuts are on all the menu at Neon Marketplace in Warwick. • You can also drive in for a tank of gas or an electric charge for your EV vehicle there at 1776 Post Rd. • There is 900 square feet of outdoor seating with heat lamps. Inside, there are counter seats that look out to Post Road. Tables are to be added. •

A gourmet burger made with a brisket and chuck beef blend served on a brioche bun, fried chicken sandwiches, and even better breakfast sandwiches, will launch later.

Chef and restaurateur Michael Schlow has been consulting on Neon’s food. He won a James Beard award for his then Radius restaurant in Boston and is a cookbook author.

But what was that second thing again?

Yes, you read that correctly. Neon Marketplace is a gas station convenience store with fast food.

But it’s something new for these parts. It wants to be like Wawa and Bucees, the convenience stores you find in the mid-Atlantic and the South.

But Neon is paving its own way on very hot pizza stones. The first thing you see when you enter the store are the flames from the mouth of the pizza oven.

It’s all by design.

“… We want you to smell the pizza,” said Elise Babey, a food scientist working to make the magic happen in the Neon kitchen.

Babey’s title at Neon is senior manager of product development and supply chain. If that seems long, it’s because she and Neon are just getting started on an ambitious endeavor. In addition to Warwick, there’s one in Seekonk and another opening soon in Freetown. A fourth location, in Fall River, will have a beer cave.
Neon Marketplace in Providence will debut later this year at the corner of Kinsley and Dean streets. A total of 150 are planned to open over the next five years.

Neon Marketplace is the newest business from the Cranston-based Procaccianti Companies. You may know about their hotels and hotel restaurants, but they are primarily a real-estate development company, said Ralph V. Izzi Jr., vice president for marketing and public affairs. They have holdings in 45 states, he added.
During his business trips, company president James Procaccianti has been exposed to upscale and quirky convenience stores. Now, he wants to be a disruptor in the industry here in New England and the Northeast, Izzi said.

They seized the chance when they acquired two gas stations on Aquidneck Island in Portsmouth and Middletown. Those are where they launched the first Neon Express stores, on a smaller scale.
But it is Warwick, at the corner of Post and Airport roads, and in Seekonk on Fall River Avenue, where the prototypes were built.

Convenience store kitchens don’t generally cost half a million dollars, Izzi said. That’s the investment to build trust they have superior food and drink. Since the Warwick store opened in January, Babey has been tweaking the menu, including launching the new pizza this week.

It takes several steps to produce the pie that she describes as a cross between a Sicilian pan and a Roman-style pizza.

It starts with proofing the dough for seven hours to guarantee a light, flavorful crust. Then each crust is baked in a quarter sheet pan in the hot brick oven before being frozen. When one is ordered, the crust comes out to be prepared with sauce, mozzarella cheese and choice of toppings, including pepperoni, olives, peppers, basil and onions. Then it’s baked right on the searing hot stone of the oven for just a few minutes.

“… This is a fast food place, so you can’t wait 16 minutes to bake the crust,” said Babey.
The pizza is also stable for travel, so it’s as good when you get home as at Neon. The most you may need to do is heat it for a few minutes in the oven, she said.

The cheese pizza is $11.99 and the pepperoni is $12.99.

Babey’s background has set her up to conquer the challenges of fast-food pizza. She has a degree in nutrition in food industries from California Polytechnic State University at San Luis Obispo, and has held jobs as a baker, as a research and development chef for Boar’s Head, and developing protein powders for a diet company.
Customized Red Bull drinks are very popular with Neon’s teen customers, she said.

She brought in Dietz & Watson deli meats for their sandwiches. They have some signature subs, but you can also order a custom sandwich made as you wait.

While a photographer shot a photo of a sandwich, Kathy Gass said she came to Neon from her home in North Providence because she loves the sandwiches. She works at one of the nearby hotels and has gotten hooked, she said.

Brewing real tea and putting strawberries in the strawberry ice cream shake are part of the plan for the drink program. Coming soon is lemonade made with real lemons.

Also planned is a breakfast pizza that will be like a quiche and fried chicken with a signature sauce.

While Babey keeps tweaking the menu, and Schlow is consulting on the new items, new to the team is Bahjat Shariff as brand leader. He began as operations manager 21 years ago with Panera Breads in New England. He’ll add some old-fashioned marketing touches.

– Gail Ciampa