Ocean State Sandwich Company has only been open for three weeks, but with its giant license plate sign on Hartford Avenue, owner Eric Handwerger is already making an impression.
“I’m not surprised at the business that we’re doing. I think it’s something people wanted and needed,” he said.
Eric is no stranger to the restaurant business. His father, Alan, opened his first restaurant, Left Bank, in Providence in 1975. It was there that Alan met his wife Lorrie, and the two have continued to work in the industry, opening restaurants in Massachusetts, Florida and Vermont.
Eric grew up in those restaurants, busing tables and washing dishes when he was as young as 12 years old. He worked his way up, serving as a line cook, waiter and later as a restaurant manager in Providence and Warwick.
“I’ve held every position in a restaurant that there is,” he said.
Managing a restaurant is tiring work, though, and with a wife and two little kids at home, the nighttime hours were starting to wear on Eric. He decided to branch out and start his own business, a breakfast and sandwich shop open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. that allows him to get home in time for dinner and playtime with the kids.
The hours are great, and so is the reception. Eric says many businesses along Hartford and Atwood Avenues have started coming in for lunch and are spreading the word.
“So far it’s been pretty much rave reviews. People are happy that we’re here,” he said.
On Monday, the parking lot at 1345 Hartford Avenue was full, and on their way out, two gentlemen waved to Eric and one said, “See you tomorrow.”
As customers come in and sit down, or take their food to go, Eric tries to talk to them to hear what kind of food they would most like to see.
“That’s one of the nice things, to be able to go out and talk to people,” he said.
The Handwergers are already trying to give back to their new host community, and are sponsoring a basketball team for the town’s Recreation Department.
“I want to be a part of the community,” said Eric, whose family recently relocated to Greenville. His parents live in Johnston.
The menu has something for everyone. Soups are made fresh daily, and can be combined with a choice of salad or half a sandwich. Sandwiches include vegetarian and vegan options like the house-made hummus, as well as items like the hot pastrami and slow-roasted beef for meat lovers.
Eric’s personal favorite is the “Apple Valley,” a house-roasted turkey breast on toasted whole wheat with bacon, granny smith apples, red onion, smoked provolone cheese and sun-dried tomato mayo. He also enjoys the French onion sandwich with Swiss cheese and caramelized onions grilled on rye bread.
Alan says the menu strikes a balance between healthy and hearty.
“I’m trying to accommodate people who want hearty, indulgent food, but give them some healthier choices too,” he said.
Looking around the area, he says the town has many restaurants, but few options for a quick sandwich.
“The idea in Johnston is to bring a healthful side to the menu that I don’t see all that much of around here,” he said.
Many of the menu items are made with locally grown ingredients – a priority for the Handwergers. Breakfast is served with eggs from Stamp Farm and Richard
Alan coffee brewed right in Johnston. Sandwiches are served on whole wheat or white bread, wraps, or on rolls from Buono’s and Rainbow Bakery.
“I’ve worked in a lot of places that have been organically focused, and here, it’s a commitment to quality that we pride ourselves on,” Eric said.
During the warmer months, he hopes to incorporate even more local ingredients, including Johnston-grown vegetables. He plans to make the rounds, introducing himself to the farm owners he hasn’t already made connections with.
Using local products, he said, translates to better quality food and a restaurant that customers can feel good about.
“We have the ability to do better than what is out there,” he said.
Ocean State Sandwich Company can also accommodate people with celiac disease, as they often use alternatives to flour to thicken their soups, and offer gluten free breads. Eric spent weeks testing gluten free breads until he found the one he liked. He said it was important for him, seeing as so many more people are being diagnosed with gluten allergies, and he didn’t want to limit those diners to just salads like at many other lunch spots.
“I’ve got to find a way to accommodate people who are gluten-free. We put a number of things on the menu, both hot and cold, aside from the salads,” he said.
Gluten free products are typically more expensive, but both with gluten free and with locally grown, organic ingredients, Eric believes the investment pays for itself.
“Don’t cut corners. As much as you think you might be able to save a buck here or there, it’s not worth it,” he said. “I want to do things right and do it well.”
Down the line, Eric and his family think Ocean State Sandwich Company has the potential to branch out to other communities. For now, though, they’re happy to have chosen Johnston, and hope to soon offer catering options. Already, customers can pick up soups, chilis and chowders by the pint or quart. While they do not offer a drive-thru, there is a call ahead window, and customers will get an accurate quote over the phone.
Eric hopes to see more return customers and new faces as the Ocean State Sandwich Company catches their eye.
“Stop in; I’m happy to take care of people,” he said. “Feel free to look at the menu as a list of ingredients. Change up the bread, change up the cheese – we’ll make sure you’re taken care of.”
Ocean State Sandwich Company is located at 1345 Hartford Avenue and is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and is closed on Sunday. For more information, visit SandwichRI.com or call 282-6772.