PROVIDENCE — When the Buy Local RI campaign first launched, the economy was in a rocky place. Many in Rhode Island and around the country were either laid off from their jobs or feared that they would be. Businesses that were once pillars of the community were closing for good.
It was close to Christmas 2008, and then-lieutenant governor Elizabeth Roberts was hoping to drive Rhode Islanders to support the local economy, focusing on small retail stores where shoppers would be helping fellow Rhode Islanders — both employees and business owners. Shifting just 10 percent of spending from chains to independent, locally owned businesses would add as much as $373 million to the state’s economy.
“We just wanted to inspire people to get out of the big box stores and support their local economy,” said Roberts, who now works at the University of Rhode Island.
The program had barely any budget or social media presence. A logo with an anchor and the state bird, the Rhode Island red, was sketched by a local artist; it was featured on stickers, decals, and tote bags. The campaign was eventually adopted by the non-profit Rhode Island Foundation, which created a central website where merchants could market their products and services.
Thirteen years later, and Rhode Island finds it’s economy in a similar, rocky place, this time because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But a new initiative to help support local hospitality industry workers is reviving the spirit of Roberts’ Buy Local RI campaign.
In partnership with the Rhode Island Hospitality Association and the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, Providence-based gift shop Frog & Toad recently announced a limited run of exclusive Buy Local RI T-shirts, with 25 percent of all proceeds donated to the Rhode Island Hospitality Employee Relief Fund.
The fund launched last year, offering $250 grants to restaurant employees in need, to help them with rent or mortgage payments, transportation costs, utility bills, student loan payments, child care, groceries, and medical bills or insurance. The T-shirts, which sell for $22 each, feature the familiar Buy Local RI logo and other designs created by Maret Bondorew and Michael Ezzell, local artists who also work at Frog & Toad.
“There are five generations working in our industry struggling to provide for themselves and their families due to wages lost from reduced hours and complete closures,” said Dale Venturini, RIHA president and CEO.
In just a few weeks, Frog & Toad co-owner Asher Schofield said $2,000 has been donated to the fund.
Two T-shirt designs are available now, and a third will be released April 19.
Bondorew is the artist who first put former governor Gina M. Raimondo’s famous pandemic message to Rhode Island residents — “Knock it Off” — on a T-shirt. Sales of those $22 shirts raised $68,000 for the Rhode Island Foundation’s COVID-19 Response Fund.
“Shopping local is just so important in Rhode Island because everyone either works for a small business or most of their friends and family work for small businesses,” said Bondorew. These days, she said, she can typically be found working from her couch at home, carrying her almost 6-month-old son, Wesley, around while sketching designs. “And using fun art to help give back is exactly what we do at Frog & Toad, not just during the pandemic.”
The Buy Local T-shirt she designed — a baby-blue shirt with the state bird surrounded by leaves and five-petal flowers — is more serious than her usual work, which includes hand-drawn greeting cards with quips like “I love the pets first, but you’re a close second” and a Venn diagram showing that 2020 is the overlap between “I miss people” and “I hate people.”
Ezzell makes Bondorew’s designs come alive inside Frog & Toad’s print shop. While the store has been closed for in-person shopping for the last year, it offers a wide range of items online and used some COVID-19 relief funds to invest in new screen printers.
Ezzell is designing the soon-to-be-unveiled third T-shirt, which he says will have a “folky feel” with rough sketching and rigid line work on a grey background.
Shirts are printed one-by-one and take about 45 second to a minute to print each color. Ezzell said he can print 100 to 150 shirts each day.
“This whole program is really what we’re all about. We’re supporting our local artists, and our restaurant friends,” said Schofield. “When you pick up one of these shirts, you can tell that they were made with some soul, some real Rhode Island love.”