PROVIDENCE — A vibrant mural on the side of Hawes Fine Foods in Fox Point overflows with larger-than-life oranges, peaches, peppers, onions, garlic and jars of jam. Large, bright windows showcase baskets of produce and beckon passersby into Hawes Fine Foods, a new specialty grocery store at 107 Hope St.
Kevin Hawes quietly opened the 428-square-foot shop on May 19. It’s a passion project for Hawes, 35, a recent transplant from Washington, D.C.
The store offers pantry staples like flour and sugar as well as artisanal goods like $9 tins of canned fish and $42 three-liter containers of cold pressed olive oil. His inventory also pays homage to Rhode Island with local products such as Rhed’s hot sauce, pickles from Backyard Food Company in Providence, and kimchi from Pawtucket’s Chi Kitchen. The selection is hand-picked by Hawes and his wife, Jessalynn James, prioritizing suppliers that value ethical production and labor.
His mission, he says, “is to try to offer an eclectic variety of foods, and of fine foods, that are sourced locally, regionally and internationally in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the environment or the communities from which they originate.”
In December 2020, Hawes quit his job as a data analyst for the state of Rhode Island to pursue this dream, inspired by things he discovered living in New York City and Washington, D.C. By January, he had signed a lease on a storefront that previously housed DaPoint Barber Shop and began breathing new life into the space — starting by painting the black building white.
Hawes’ dream store is mostly self-funded, with some help from his parents. “I wanted to take some money out of Wall Street and put it into Hope Street,” he said, “and really build this business, really invest in my community and in a commodity that’s tangible, not an intangible stock option.”
The decision was a calculated risk. When he made the leap, the pandemic was still in full swing and profitability wasn’t guaranteed. But he followed COVID’s predicted trajectory closely, and felt sure that by the time he was ready to open vaccines would be sufficiently widespread.
Another risk: relying on word of mouth and the mural, which he commissioned from friend and artist Ed Mitchell, instead of conventional advertising. This organic approach, he said, circumvents steep advertising costs that often don’t promise a payoff. Most of all, he was confident that his store would be a welcome addition to Fox Point, filling a gap in the neighborhood.
“There’s just really nothing like this around,” he said.
One customer passing through the store, Danielle Bourke, 44, lamented the “lack of specialty food in Providence,” and had been eager to pay the store a visit. She was pleasantly surprised by the selection, leaving with cheese, ice cream cones, truffle chips, Schaller & Weber sausages and a bag of fresh peaches.
Business has steadily grown since the store’s opening. The store’s profits are funneled directly into its operations, and Hawes, the store’s sole employee, has yet to pay himself. His wife, who currently works as analytics director at TNTP — and whose work as a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Institute at Brown brought them to Rhode Island — is able to support them as the business gets off the ground.
Hawes’ own career has pivoted a number of times, taking him from the Civilian Complaint Review Board investigating police misconduct in New York to a hardware store on the Upper West Side. Before moving to Rhode Island in 2019, Hawes worked as an economist for the U.S. Department of Commerce in D.C.
Each experience informs his work today, in distinct ways. Having worked at the Department of Commerce affords him a deep understanding of the small business landscape. And hardware stores, like small grocery stores, are intimately embedded in their communities and must be responsive to customer needs. Hawes keeps a small notebook filled with customer suggestions next to his cash register.
“I’m trying to build this store into the fabric of the community, so that it really becomes a part of the neighborhood,” he said.
Hawes sees an eventual expansion in the store’s future, in personnel and in the breadth of his inventory. The experience so far, he said, has been a lesson in the value of leaning into risk.
“You really have to throw caution to the wind at some point and just go for it,” he said. “If you have an idea that you think is going to work, why wait?”