We sat down with Ben Howarth of Riccotti’s Sandwich Shop in Bristol, Rhode Island to discuss history of Riccotti’s, how he’s started taking on a larger role in management, and Riccotti’s goals for the future.
Howarth is the third generation of his family to run Riccotti’s Sandwich Shop – grandfather Les opened the store in 1971, and his mother Kathy has been running it for a number of years, with Howarth taking on more of the responsibility in recent years. “She’s kind of taking a step back, while I’m taking two steps forward,” said Howarth. “We’re in the middle of doing the transition right now, but my mom will be staying on. She’s been running it since – I don’t know the exact date, but it’s gotta be close to 20 years now.
“Everything we do, every part of the business is community based,” he said. The friendliness and welcoming atmosphere of Riccotti’s is well known to any Bristolian, and the staff are a huge part of that. “If you come into the shop, I don’t care how busy we are or what time it is – you’ll hear the staff calling out to customers by first name. And that’s not just me,” he added with a laugh. “It’s not like, ‘Oh I’ve been here for a long time, I know everybody by first name.’ Even, for example, the high school kids who haven’t been here that long start to see the same people and contribute to that feeling of being here.” Howarth attributes this partially to great employees, but even moreso to the town itself.
The community within Bristol is a huge part of the store. Connections and relationships are built or strengthened every day with Riccotti’s: “I’ll see a lot of that, especially when I’m behind the line and I see people see each other for the first time in a couple of weeks, and then they hang out and chitchat for twenty minutes. I like people watching and seeing that happen because that’s kind of the point of the whole thing. Like when you mentioned you’d spoken to A Jour [Jewelry, a local jeweler in Bristol] – I went there to buy a wedding ring. And Klaus mentioned that his son was looking for a job, and now his son works at Riccotti’s. And now his business is part of our little community. I know what’s going on with his family and his father and his brothers. And it’s like that for most of our staff.”
Most of the Riccotti’s staff live relatively close by to Bristol, if not in Bristol, and this personal investment in the community that Riccotti’s supports makes the shop especially unique. “No one’s driving, you know, 45 minutes to get to work – everyone is part of this community, which is just really cool. Whenever somebody applies for a job and we hire someone, they’re almost always already part of the community, and you know their friend or their cousin or their roommate or their mother, or something like that. It’s just the best reference you could have. And we have the best staff in town. I know I’m biased, but our staff is so good. And they’ve all been there for a really, really long time. And that’s what it’s about: trying to create a culture where people like working there, where they know each other and hang out together outside of work.
“And if you can do that,” said Howarth, “it seems that that attracts more people than any social media post. It’s just word of mouth stuff. And seeing the same faces all the time – we have a customer who comes in every single day, Monday to Friday and has for 10+ years. And you start to become such a part of their life. And it’s weird, because you know, working at the store, it is a job of course, but if you don’t work there, you lose this giant sense of community that you get from being there. So that’s definitely an important part of it.”
“Everything we do, every part of the business is community based. If you come into the shop, I don’t care how busy we are or what time it is – you’ll hear the staff calling out to customers by first name.”
Having been in business for 51 years now, there must be something more than just good food keeping Riccotti’s such a staple of the town. Howarth agreed, reiterating the impact of the deep sense of community in Bristol. “I think it really does come back to the community, I really do. So many people know me or my family or other staff and their family. The food is good, and I’m proud of that. And I’m proud of how efficient we are and how busy we are. But it’s really just all about those ties. And I think we have good ones in this community because it’s something we’re constantly focused on.”
Rhode Island probably isn’t the only place whose residents crave the familiar, but the old joke about Rhode Islanders perpetually using out of date landmarks to give directions comes to mind (“When you’ve hit the old Ames, you’ve gone too far!”), but it’s more than that to Bristolians. “Even with us at the store, if we have an electrical problem, we’re using a guy that we know. It’s not some stranger, it’s not a random directory person. Every part of the business is based on that. And everybody that works on the store is in the community. And I think that’s pretty unique to us, honestly, just because of our tenure in the area. 51 years is a lot! And you build a lot of relationships with a lot of people and their children and their children’s children. So it’s interesting for me to take a larger role and responsibility and see that happening. And to see people who know me, but I don’t know them – like, ‘Oh, you’re Les’s grandkid, right?’ Or, like, ‘Your Kathy’s son, right?’”
Howarth’s path to taking on more of the management of Riccotti’s wasn’t always set in stone, though. “This wasn’t my original career. I grew up in this business, and maybe took it a little bit for granted at times. Like, there’s a picture in the store of me at one year old, and I think when you’re a teenager, or you’re younger, you’re kind of figuring out what your path is. And so I was actually a merchant mariner for about six or seven years. I did deep sea, working on these big international ships. I found I missed Riccotti’s, even though I would always work there part time when I was home from sailing. And all those relationships were still there. I go way back with everyone that works there, which is just a really fun thing to have.”
Howarth has been back at Riccotti’s full time for about three years now, and he said that the timing couldn’t have been better. “I met my wife, and I didn’t want to keep going away for six months at a time. And right afterwards, COVID happened, which has been difficult for restaurants, but I have a lot of buddies that still operate in that career, and it’s been horrendous for them because they actually can’t leave the ship. They’re stuck on the ship because if anyone got COVID it would affect everyone pretty quickly. So I’m pretty happy with the timing on that career shift.”
The pandemic, explained Howarth, has had a big impact on how customers order and how the store itself functions. There had already been changes in the works when COVID started: they happened to switch from what Howarth calls an “old school system” to a more modern point of sale system right around the same time as COVID. “This was a huge change for us, and we added TV monitors in the back to show the orders, which really helped our kitchen flow. And our online ordering has really revolutionized our business. It creates accountability and eliminates any possibility of miscommunication. It’s so much more efficient, and customers are getting a text when an order is done. The accuracy is over 96% right now. We weren’t ever able to do that before. So that’s been a major change for us.”
COVID also caused a shutdown of restaurants for a couple of weeks in spring 2020, which gave gave the staff of Riccotti’s some dedicated time without customers. “We stayed busy!” said Howarth. “We used that time to tear apart the store and do an overhaul with the dining room and the kitchen in the back. We cleaned everything, took everything apart. We painted things, construction crews came in. We actually made a lot of changes to the interior during that time. And we still are, but it gave us an opportunity to kind of step back and say like, ‘Okay, you know, what actually needs to be done? We have this time to do these things we never did before.’ Because before we were open seven days a week from 8am to 9pm.”
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If anything needed to be done in the store that couldn’t happen while it was open, Howarth would realistically still be in the store at midnight, with maybe one or two other people. But since having that time with the store closed, they’ve changed a few other things as well. “Now we’re closed on Sundays. Now we open at 10:30 and we close at 8:30. And it’s not at all about wanting to, you know, serve less customers. Nobody wants to do that! It’s about making an opportunity to keep the maintenance up and just keep up with things that you can’t do when you’re open, which was just really challenging when we were open 95% of the time.”
“We’ve made a lot of changes over the past couple of years, and we intend to do more, but you don’t want to lose what made people fall in love with it to begin with. We just want to make sure the store can last another 50 years, and we need to, you know, be on the forefront of everything that’s available to restaurants right now. And with the restaurant industry, because of COVID, the technological requirements to run a restaurant have really changed. It feels like a ten-year change in one year. Think about how online ordering just
took over, right? That would have taken 5-10 years easily. That would have been a much more gradual change. You see restaurants that were doing 10 percent online ordering now doing 50 percent. And you see the phones taking a step back, and you just see so many changes so quickly. So that’s also affecting us too.”
As for the future of Riccotti’s, Howarth explained that it’s at times a bit of a balancing act to look ahead. “I don’t want to shake things up. I don’t want to, you know, change too much. I want to keep things as efficient as possible and stay on top of the technology that’s letting us create those efficiencies, but at the same time, I don’t want to change the core values of the store. You don’t want to lose sight of those. A few years ago we talked about switching the menu boards to TV monitors because it’s quicker and easier to change menu items. But I feel like it would have taken away from the atmosphere. You don’t want to – I don’t want to say make it too modern, but at the same time, you don’t want to lose sight of where everything came from and of how it makes people feel to be here.
“And you don’t want to do a big franchise operation. You want it to be unique, and you want people to see the same people every day or every week or even every so often. Right? So that’s the mission. Those are the values right there. So we’re just gonna keep on doing that.”
Visit Riccotti’s Sandwich Shop at 11 Golding Avenue in Bristol, Rhode Island.