Something’s Cooking In Providence’s West End: Factory Becomes Culinary Springboard

By John Hill
The Providence Journal, R.I.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Future female entrepreneurs in the Providence, R.I. area listen up!  A very cool new space is being built that will house two commercial kitchens, restaurant space and 40 efficiency apartments for young food-industry entrepreneurs. For women in business who want to launch a food biz….this could be a great opportunity!

PROVIDENCE

In its 125 years, the old brick factory at 55 Cromwell St. has made bicycle tires, electronic components and jewelry. Now it’s getting ready to make dinner.

The interior of the 1891 building, once filled by the clatter and thrum of steam-powered, belt-driven machines, is being gutted and rebuilt as the new home of two commercial kitchens, restaurant space and 40 efficiency apartments for young food-industry entrepreneurs.

Federico Manaigo, whose Cromwell Ventures LLC owns the building, said the conversion is aimed at capitalizing on Providence’s reputation as a restaurant mecca. When finished, he said, the factory will be home to recent college graduates considering the restaurant business, either as chefs or owners.

The converted factory will give them a place to live with others interested in the same field, and for a $150-$200 annual membership fee, they will have access to professional-caliber kitchens and a restaurant on the first floor where they can test their menus on real customers in a one-night “pop-up” business.
The apartment part of the project is called Rooms&Works. The kitchen will operate on its own as The Armory Kitchen, but will share equipment with Rooms&Works. Manaigo said rent for the one-bedroom units will start at around $1,000 a month.
Manaigo wants to see if he can duplicate the success of Hot Bread Kitchen, an incubator program in East Harlem in New York City. That program, without apartments, rents space to people with small ethnic food businesses who want to grow into full-fledged commercial operations. It also provides training programs and rents space to start-ups that grow from those efforts.
The idea is to give promising food-business grads a way to stay in Providence, he said, where they can hone their skills and, when they’re ready to open a restaurant, bakery or catering company, do it in Rhode Island and hire Rhode Islanders.
Growing sector
Manaigo may be on to something. The state Department of Labor and Training, in its 2012-2022 industry employment outlook report, estimated that the number of jobs in the “food services and drinking places” sector, as it calls bars and restaurants, was expected to grow by 5,149 jobs to 45,000, an increase of 12.3 percent, over that decade.
Armory Kitchen will give tenants access to the kind of equipment they were able to practice on in college: two commercial quality kitchens designed to accommodate haute cuisine chefs, mass production caterers and food wagon operators. There will be 10-burner ranges, combination ovens, convection ovens, fryers, broilers, mixers and stationary kettles. Smaller kitchens will be equipped to handle baking, candy making, canning, curing, smoking and pickling. Manaigo said he hopes to attract a winery or micro-brewer to the complex.
Manaigo said he wants to see if the project can tap into sources of culinary inspiration beyond the colleges. The East Harlem incubator found success by recruiting immigrants, especially women, from the neighborhood, persuading them to share their recipes from home and start small bakeries selling their food. The West End has Middle Eastern, Asian and Central and South American restaurants in its storefronts, a sign of a diverse ethnic population Manaigo said he hopes the kitchen can work with.
The economics of the $6.5-million conversion were helped by a 25-percent historic tax credit from the state and a 15-year tax stabilization agreement with the city. Under the tax treaty with the city, taxes due on the property will be frozen for five years. In years 6 through 15, Cromwell Ventures will pay gradually increasing percentages of its income, or a required minimum, whichever is greater. The minimum begins at $40,000 or 6 percent of gross income in year 6 and grows steadily to 15 percent of gross income in year 15, or $130,000, whichever is more. In year 16 the property will be taxed as any other commercial property in the city.
Virtually all other city property tax treaties have been based on a building’s assessed value, but Mayor Jorge O. Elorza said the city was open to the income-based approach because the project would put a historic, vacant building back in use and because it fits with the city’s efforts to improve the economy of the West End, where more than half the residents live below the poverty level.
He said he also liked that it offered a way for the city to use the colleges in the area as sources of potential new business owners and play off the restaurant business in a way that could make it even bigger in the future.
“The whole food scene is a strategic strength for the city,” he said. “This fits squarely within that.”
Built to last
Manaigo’s project is just the latest instance of 55 Cromwell St. adapting to the current economy. Throughout its life, the building has had a lucky run of longtime tenants.
David Corsetti, whose Premier Land Development is handling the interior work, said that streak meant the building had been cared for until very recently.
“The natural enemy of a mill building is neglect,” Corsetti said.
Even in its good condition, Manaigo and Corsetti said, cutting trenches in the 1891 building’s concrete floor to install a modern sewer system and adapting it to modern technology is still work.
“It’s always a challenge to preserve as much as you can when you convert it to a new use,” Manaigo said. “You can’t go wrong with the bones of the building. The walls, the beams are strong.”
Corsetti and Antonio Manaigo, Federico’s brother, agreed. Earlier this month, as a group of visitors were shown where the new walls and appliances will go, the two men gazed up at one of the thick brown beams that run across the width of the top floor. It was uncracked, unstained and unbowed.
“Douglas fir or hemlock,” Corsetti said.
Antonio eyed it carefully for a few more seconds. “Douglas fir,” he said.
“That’s old-growth lumber,” Corsetti said, cut and milled in the late 19th century from old growth trees on the American prairie. Those trees are long gone, he said. Today buildings are built with fast-growth lumber, wood with whorls and knots that, while adequate, can’t match the strength of beams like those.
When work started on the building, Corsetti said, several furniture makers and hardwood floor salesmen contacted them to see if Premier was interest in selling the beams. Corsetti said removing them would be an architectural blasphemy.
“Look at that grain,” he said, sounding like a schoolkid admiring an all-star athlete. “Its tensile strength. It doesn’t have any knots.”
Surprises in walls
As the construction workers have burrowed into the building’s innards, they have found the factory is also a time capsule of sorts. Federico Manaigo said they have turned up dozens of late-1800s beer bottles with “Narragansett” on them that were left between the beams of the original walls and floors by the original builders. There were boxes and boxes of small charms in the shapes of boats, birds, leaves, fruits and myriad other items, sprinkled like tiny pirate treasure chests all over the place, he said.
The first floor was filled with old equipment that looked like giant grey sewing machines, many from Brown and Sharpe. Federico Manaigo said he was hoping to get the Rhode Island School of Design to work the bottles into the interior architecture. He wants to restore the machines — some of which still work — and use them to decorate the building as well.
“I couldn’t stand seeing them go for scrap,” he said.
Corsetti said the workers found other marks of the building’s history.
“As we took out the windows, we found dates inscribed there, and the names of the guys who worked on it in 1891,” he said. “Our guys added our names, and 2016.”
The life of 55 Cromwell St.
1891 — Built, opens as the Mechanical Fabric Co., making rubber thread and bicycle tires.
1917 — U.S. Rubber purchases assets of Mechanical Fabric Co.
1920 — Demand for diversified product line booms during World War I; a fourth floor is added.
1939 — After employment drops from 175 in 1930 to 57 in 1937, U.S Rubber closes the plant.
1945 — George Klein Co., jewelry maker, moves in. Rents space to Conrad-Dubilier, electronics maker.
1965 — Klein Co. moves out, Josef Creations, another jewelry maker, moves in.
2013 — Josef Creations, last jewelry maker in Providence, moves out.
2013 — Purchased by Cromwell Ventures.
Source: National Register of Historical Places registration form
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