MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — It may have taken a pandemic to show just how important restaurants are to any state’s economy. And while some eating establishments in Rhode Island are barely hanging on and others have permanently closed, many have found a way to persevere by shifting gears or offering something new.
Since March 2020, 228 food businesses in the Ocean State have closed, but more than double that number – 547 to be exact – have opened, according to a spokesperson for the Rhode Island Department of Health, which oversees restaurant inspections.
One of those new restaurants is Plant City X, which opened in mid-January on a busy road in Middletown. The Northeast’s first plant-based, fast-food, drive-through restaurant is the brainchild of Providence’s Plant City food hall owners Kim Anderson and Matthew Kenney.
And while some might view opening a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic as an audacious move, Anderson insists it’s just the opposite.
Plant City, an Eataly-style dining establishment serving all plant-based food that opened in June 2019, stayed afloat during the pandemic thanks to a high volume of curbside pickup orders. A drive-through version of the popular spot only made sense.
“It’s what was keeping us going at Plant City during the pandemic – especially as it was getting colder outside,” she said. “The cars pull up, we run out with the food, and off they go. We were doing 50 to 60 percent of our business out the front door.”
They already had a steady stream of customers from Newport and Middletown coming to the Providence location and she “knew we had good brand recognition” in the area, Anderson said. She “just knew” that a drive-through concept would work.
Kenney, a Venice, California-based celebrity vegan chef, author, and wellness entrepreneur, agreed.
“This works well at a time when people are trying to avoid being around others in public spaces, but (it works) even when that’s not the case,” said Kenney, who has opened or is in the process of opening 40 restaurants – including seven during the pandemic (“I’m kind of fearless,” he joked). “While we are always passionate with full-service dining and upscale restaurants, having the opportunity to serve our guests the foods they crave on a daily basis, with convenience, is an incredibly important step in facilitating the world’s shift toward a plant-based diet.”
In addition to being far enough from Providence that it would not “cannibalize our [existing] business,” Anderson said the 3,600-square-foot, red brick building in Middletown — a former Papa Gino’s that had been closed for more than a year and a half — was an ideal space that could be retrofitted with a drive-through window. Plant City X, which offers indoor counter service and seating for 40 with COVID-19 restrictions and more than 70 once the restrictions are lifted, is open and airy with oversize radius windows, high ceilings, a front patio, and a mix of comfortably spaced tables and booths.
“Kim has great taste … and is so good at visualizing what can be possible with any space,” Kenney said. “We were really happy with how it turned out.”
As for the food, Anderson said she and Luis Jaramillo, Plant City’s executive chef, devised a “slimmed down” menu that would work well in a fast-paced environment.
That menu, much of which is locally sourced, includes a variety of burgers made from beans, vegetables, and grains; “chik” sandwiches and nuggets of crispy fried tofu; sweet potato and regular French fries with creative toppings; salad bowls; three varieties of gluten-free mac and cheese; breakfast sandwiches; and shakes.
Sarah Bratko, senior vice president of advocacy and general counsel for the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, said she is not surprised by the success of Plant City X.
“Every time I’ve been to Plant City I’ve been pleasantly surprised by something I’ve ordered from their menu, and I hope it continues,” she said, adding that while she has yet to visit the Middletown location, she is a regular at Plant City in Providence. “It’s such a unique, fun concept.”
She attributed the growing interest in plant-based food to the fact that “people are becoming more educated on the type of food that they’re eating” and are “willing to try different things.” But it’s the dedicated Rhode Island dining community that is really helping businesses thrive during difficult times.
“It has been so heartwarming in a year of such challenges and loss and devastation to just see the outpouring of support that we’ve received from the local community and the way that people are so passionate about their local restaurants,” Bratko said. “It’s really a cultural phenomenon how much people value their local restaurants in Rhode Island.”
In 2019, there were 57,600 restaurant and food service jobs in Rhode Island – 11 percent of employment in the state – according to the National Restaurant Association. That number is projected to grow by 7.6 percent – 4,400 additional jobs, for a total of 62,000 – by 2029, the organization predicts.
Anderson and Kenney hope to contribute to those numbers, as they plan to open additional Plant City X drive-through restaurants in Rhode Island and throughout Southern New England.
“We are trying to share with the world what a globally sustainable plant-based diet can be and that it can be delicious and creative and colorful … and could be served in a fun environment by people who really want you to be there,” Anderson said. “Plant City and Plant City X are pretty cool places.”