WARWICK, R.I. ― For the last several weeks, Elise Babey has been sampling every variation of the pizza that the gas station she works for is serving. They scrapped their thin crust, artisanal flatbread for a thicker, Rhode Island-style pizza where the dough is proofed for seven hours, baked in a sheet pan inside a brick oven, and where customers can add premium cup char pepperoni, which curls into a cup when its heated, holding in the salty oil.
This is the pizza at NEON Marketplace, a fuel station that is looking to redefine what “gas station food” means in Rhode Island, let alone the rest of the Northeast.
At their location on Post Road in Warwick, which is being used as a prototype to scale the chain, commuters can fill their tank of gas, charge their Tesla, and get a real meal. Babey, who has worked to perfect each pizza pie, burger, grinder, and other made-to-order meals at NEON, is the company’s senior manager of product development and supply chain, and is committed to a nearly scratch kitchen in an unlikely place. Even restaurateur and chef Michael Schlow, who won a James Beard award in 2000 for his restaurant Radius (which has since closed), is consulting for them.
“This is really breaking that glass ceiling of convenience and changing the customer’s idea of what ‘gas station food’ represents,” Babey said in an interview while sitting at a four-person table in NEON. “Why can’t a convenience store serve food just as good as any of the quick-service restaurants in the area?”
She has a background in nutrition and food science, previously working as the researcher and chef for Boar’s Head before developing a supplement line of protein powders for a weight-loss chain.
“So really, I went from protein shakes to pizza and cookies,” she said laughing, and explained how she wanted to expand the menu into salads, açaí bowls, smoothies, and “other healthier options.”
NEON Marketplace has two locations, in Warwick, and Seekonk, Mass., both of which are open 24 hours a day. They serve brick-oven pizzas, fresh cookies, and other pastries, squeeze their own lemons for lemonade, and brew iced tea daily. There’s a café on site that features customized espresso drinks made by hand, bean-to-cup coffee machines (a medium cup of coffee is only $1.50), and hot breakfast. Bitcoin ATM machines are inside.
A NEON in Fall River will feature a “beer cave.” The Middletown and Portsmouth Neon Marketplace “Express” locations are scaled-down versions.
Ordering a decent meal at the same place where you pump your car with gas is a new concept in Rhode Island. In fact, most in the Northeast thinks of gas station and convenience store food as rolling hot dogs, stale doughnuts, beef jerky, and oversize soda cups with not-so appetizing words written across the sides like “gulp.”
But outside of New England is where the worlds of simple culinary creations and gas stations collide. Farther down the Eastern seaboard Wawa, which started in the 1960s, operates nearly 900 convenience stores and gas stations from Florida to New Jersey. In the South, there’s Buc-ee’s, which started in the early 1980s in Texas, and serves Texas barbecue, homemade fudge, kolaches, and pastries alongside their fuel. But those are both chains.
In recent years, independent chefs have opted to move away from fine dining restaurants to open kitchens inside gas stations that are worth a stop. El Carajo serves Spanish tapas and wine inside a gas station in Miami. Whoa Nellie Deli in Lee Vining, Calif., serves their famous fish tacos with whitefish and mango salsa inside a Mobil.
Ralph Izzi Jr., the vice president of Cranston-based Procaccianti Companies, which is NEON’s parent company, said there’s a craving for superior food and drink under a convenient roof. The Warwick marketplace features a brightly lit, clean store with high ceilings; tables and counters are spread out with lots of open space; there are touchscreens for customers to place their orders; an entire counter will soon feature local New England products; and each market is creating another 30 to 40 jobs in the area that are paying above minimum wage.
And the leaders at NEON might be expanding at just the right time.
According to a June study by Bluedot, a customer information platform used by big brands such as McDonald’s and Dunkin’, data shows that nearly 6 in 10 American adults consider purchasing a meal from a convenience store when stopping for fast food. And 61 percent of those surveyed said they would visit a convenience store more often if more were available.
“The data supports what industry leaders have been saying for some time — [convenience] stores are now competing head to head with [quick-service restaurants]. Clearly, the investments c-store brands have been making into food service initiatives are paying off,” said Emil Davityan, Bluedot’s cofounder and CEO.
According to Bahjat Shariff, NEON’s brand leader, the company is opening a location in Freetown, Mass., later this summer, while locations in Quincy, Worcester, and West Springfield are expected to open between the end of 2022 and spring of 2023. In Rhode Island, their upcoming Providence location, on the corner of Dean Street and Kinsley Avenue, is under construction and will open in the fall.
“We’ll have nine locations open with 20 [in total] all signed deals on the books. I worked for a previous company and built 28 stores... But that took 20 years,” said Shariff.
He said the company’s board plans on raising more than $200 million in January, which will help open another 100 stores in the next five to 10 years. Executives at NEON said they plan on “flooding” New England with NEON stores during that time, and then hope to begin branching out across the United States.
“There’s an intense appetite for serious growth behind us,” said Shariff.