Entrepreneurs Reimagine Bristol’s Unity Park

Wood Street mill building is becoming a food and drink destination

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“Well, if it’s not COVID, it’s something else.” So is the sentiment of Mathiew Medeiros and his wife Lyslie, owners of Basil & Bunny, a food truck soon to be a brick-and-mortar restaurant joining Unity Park in Bristol, a mill redevelopment project, this summer. Basil & Bunny features vegan and vegetarian comfort food – their plant-based take on a Big Mac quickly put them on the list of Rhode Island’s must-visit food trucks. But they had only been operating for a couple of months when COVID shut everything down in March 2020. Companies and individuals across the globe learned what it meant to pivot. But no industry was forced to get creative more than restaurants.

“We didn’t panic,” says Mat who, like Lyslie, has a business degree from Johnson & Wales University. Not that it was easy, especially in those early weeks, even for the man whose LinkedIn profile reads “If I put my mind to it, I can accomplish anything.” Mathiew knew something of the food and beverage industry, having worked with both Narragansett and Revival brewing companies after graduation. “Businesses, especially small ones, always have challenges to overcome,” he says. “So COVID became that. A problem to solve.”

After a brief stall, Mat and Lyslie took to social media and became experts, with the help of the kitchens at Hope & Main, at preparing their food to go. “Despite COVID, we did well,” he says. It buoyed the couple for the move to Unity Park and their new 2,500-square-foot space, which they expect to open in June.

Adam and Natalie O’Brien had to modify in a similar way. The couple, who have a nine-month-old, have long envisioned a distillery of their own. O’Brien & Brough, featuring whiskey and whiskey cocktails, will also open in Unity Park this summer. “While some of the whiskey we make will be distilled by us and there’s already great whiskey being made in Rhode Island, there’s a vast world of whiskey out there that we would like to help bring to the local community,” says Adam.

Adam recently left his job as an audiovisual systems engineer at Suffolk University. “At the same time, I’ve been studying brewing and distilling and scrounging up small jobs in the industry while attending every whiskey tasting I possibly could.” Natalie’s background is in business management and transactional law. “I’m a Roger Williams alumna and I’ve always imagined returning to Bristol someday. Bristol and Unity Park bring together everything we could hope for from both a personal and business perspective,” she says. 

But despite their preparation, the pandemic added an unexpected level of difficulty. “It’s made everything more expensive, harder to find, and increased lead times, in some cases by months,” says Adam. “We’re a small producer, and manufacturers and suppliers are looking for much larger minimum orders than they were before.”

Financing, too – always an impediment for new small businesses – became more difficult. Like the Medeiroses, the O’Briens turned to smaller avenues of financing. “The lending climate around the pandemic made it tough for us to find financing,” says Adam. Ultimately, the O’Briens found help from the Rhode Island Small Business Development Center. Still, he believes the positive vibes around the Wood Street project helped. “I would be surprised if Unity Park wasn’t a major reason why the bank was interested in lending to us.”

And, like the Medeiroses, the O’Briens are problem solving and making adjustments. “We’re doing everything we can to open this summer,” says Adam. “Customers should know that we are going to open with a very limited product selection, but we hope that the quality of what we have to offer will surprise everyone. Even if you don’t like whiskey, or think you don’t like whiskey, we would love the opportunity to change your mind.”

Unity Park, previously known as Bristol Industrial Park, is comprised of three buildings and about 230,000 square feet of commercial and industrial space along Wood Street, a half-dozen or so blocks in from the town’s waterfront bars and restaurants such as Aidan’s Pub, Thames Waterside Bar and Grill, and Quito’s. The mill opened as the National Rubber Company in 1865. It changed names and owners through the years but remained a productive and important East Coast factory specializing in the production of rubber. In the 1940s, the factory had about 6,000 employees – about half the population of the town of Bristol.

With changing times, the mill fell into receivership in 2010. But several local residents found value in the property, appreciating its role in the town’s history. Enter Joe Brito, Jr., a long-time Bristol resident, businessman, and property owner. “Our family has a history of taking properties that are a blight and being able to turn them around,” Brito said at the time he bought the complex, in late 2019, for $750,000. “The spirit of Unity Park is to breathe new life into a place that was once a pillar of Bristol’s economy and pride by adapting it to the current times.” 

Bristol Town Administrator Steven Contente says that Town Hall was more than happy to assist the securing of what would become Unity Park with tax incentives and grants. “The property is special in part because so many people in the town once had relatives who worked there when it was a factory,” he says. “We’re very pleased to see the property be preserved and improved with mixed-use space.” 

The state, too, played a part in setting up Wood Street for success going back five years, when Rhode Island Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor helped secure a grant to improve the surrounding area, making it more pedestrian-friendly. “To see a Rhode Islander creating a small business on this street…” he noted at the time, “it doesn’t get better than that. That’s what we exist to do.”

The support is an added bonus for Adam O’Brien. “One of the biggest surprises for us so far has been how incredibly helpful and supportive working with the town of Bristol has been. We’re really looking forward to making Bristol our home.” 

The O’Briens and the Medeiroses own two of the more than two dozen small businesses that will call Unity Park home through the end of the year and beyond. Many of them will be food related. In addition to Basil & Bunny and O’Brien & Brough, there is, or will be, a second location for Borealis Coffee Company (the first is located in Riverside), Brick Pizza Company (opened by Bristol Oyster Bar owner Jordan Sawyer), Fieldstone Kombucha, and Pivotal Brewing Company. And while it might not be obvious to patrons enjoying vegan burgers or thin-crust pizza in the dining rooms, many of these businesses will embody a lasting effect of the pandemic: flexible space and more of it, allowing for take-out and catering operations to happen at a moment’s notice.

For Hope & Main president and founder Lisa Raiola, this is the enduring and positive impact of the pandemic, and proof that culinary folks in particular are nimble when it comes to facing obstacles. Raiola and her staff are directly responsible for helping that vision come to life for some of these tenants, who, in part, may be better able to pivot. They are new, not locked into a typical sit-down restaurant protocol, and are flexible much in the way a 12-year-old can do a cartwheel more easily than a 50-year-old.

Hope & Main was established in 2014 and quickly became one of the country’s top culinary incubators. They have launched 300 food-related businesses, including Basil & Bunny and Borealis, with their mission to empower entrepreneurs with everything they will need to launch a successful food business. “We look at food as something that creates a vibrant local economy,” Raiola says.

She credits COVID with giving some food entrepreneurs a futuristic vision about the industry and where it might be headed. “There was no playbook,” she says. “We had to be confidently vulnerable, to pressure-test and welcome the innovation that comes from challenge,” Raiola says of Hope & Main’s “COVID babies,” including Fieldstone Kombucha, born between early 2020 and now. “They pivoted in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise,” Raiola says. During COVID, she explains, some businesses used the community kitchens at Hope & Main to prep food for take-out and delivery, something many of them, especially food trucks, might not have the capacity to do. It kept them moving forward during that scary time.

It would seem, too, Raiola notes, that COVID permanently increased the number of ways we get our food, and has made home delivery, pick-up, and even grocery delivery part of our dining vernacular. So when Fieldstone and Basil & Bunny were considering their build-out at Unity Park, it made sense to include flexible space – more than just a standard kitchen to feed guests in the dining area. “We want them to have a more diverse kitchen and larger production capability because it’s part of the future,” Raiola says.

And these new food entrepreneurs are embracing the challenge. “We had been looking at other spaces,” says Mathiew. “But Hope & Main guided us to Unity Park. Now it’s become such a passion project for us. We are so optimistic.”

On a recent early spring night, Pivotal Brewing Company, easily found at Unity Park if you follow the smokestack, is humming. The cavernous space is pure converted mill – exposed brick walls, gargantuan windows, soaring ceilings. Chatter and laughter rise from mismatched tables and chairs plucked from vintage furniture stores. It’s what Todd Nicholson and Rebecca Ernst imagined when they opened the microbrewery in the fall of 2021. The name is a nod to the fact that the couple wanted to “pivot” away from their day jobs in marketing and event production to become full-time brewers. The irony of the name wasn’t lost on the couple as they endured COVID-induced construction delays. But finally, they opened with three beers on tap. There isn’t a kitchen, but in the true collaborative spirit of Unity Park, the taproom will be serviced by food trucks.

A few doors down, at Brick Pizza Company, Town Administrator Contente and company are enjoying several of the restaurant’s selections of pizza, pasta, and apps. From across the room, he spies several plaques hanging on a wall. A server explains that owner Jordan Sawyer found them in storage during the space’s build-out, and that they commemorate milestones of the individuals who worked in the space generations ago. “It’s so nice to see the old and the new together,” Contente notes later.

There is no such thing as smooth sailing in the restaurant and hospitality industry, so even as COVID abates, challenges will endure. Owners are still having trouble manning positions in the front of the house; although – according to the Rhode Island Hospitality Association – the problem has gotten better, staffing has yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. On top of that, workers are demanding more money, more work/life balance, and more of a mission and purpose in their jobs. Supply-chain issues are still a factor, and of course, there’s always the possibility of another COVID variant.

Still, optimism reigns supreme, at least here at Unity Park. By summer and fall of this year, business should be in full swing for this group of hopeful entrepreneurs, who find satisfaction in small victories. “It might sound odd,” says Adam, “but I’m most looking forward to the smells! The beer and coffee brewing, the whiskey in oak barrels, the pizza baking and the bay air. Can you imagine how good that will smell?”

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