Hope & Main’s founder didn’t set out to change the state’s food industry, but she did.
Lisa Riaiola
Credit: Rupert Whiteley

When Lisa Raiola was diagnosed in 2004 with uterine cancer, she dramatically changed her diet—but her new ayurvedic way of eating wasn’t easy. Her family and friends were forced to scour markets and grocery stores for locally-grown, clean foods because Raiola was, at the time, disabled. “I said if I ever get better, I would love to start a food business that would bring food to people like me—medical shut-ins, the elderly,” Raiola explains.

Instead, as the founder of Rhode Island food incubator Hope & Main, Raiola has helped to launch 155 other food and beverage businesses—so many, in fact, that one in every three food and beverage businesses in the state have been started at Hope & Main, Raiola says.

She didn’t set out to revolutionize Rhode Island’s food and beverage industry. Rather, by 2009—when Raiola had rehabbed enough to enter remission and was ready to start her imagined meal-delivery business—she stumbled on prime real estate: an 18,000-square-foot former schoolhouse where Main Street in Warren, Rhode Island, meets Hope Street.

“I looked around and I said, ‘I bet there are a lot of people like me who might want to start a food business, but who don’t have the money and don’t have the code-compliant kitchen to do it,” Raiola recalls. And so, the idea for the food incubator—a combination of kitchens and classrooms, where startups could cook and learn to market themselves—was born.

“This project found me,” Raiola tells Food & Wine now. “It wasn’t something I was setting out to do, but it was something I became hell-bent on delivering.”

It wasn’t easy: Raiola had to secure a town vote to purchase the building, a piece of public property. To even hold the vote, the Warren City Council told her, 125 citizens would need to attend a special meeting. “I was told they’d never had that many people even to pass the budget,” Raiola says. So she hit the streets, so to speak, and told everyone who would listen what she planned to do with the building and why it was important not only to the town of Warren but to the state as a whole. “At the time, Rhode Island only consumed one percent of what we grew—everything else left the state,” Raiola says. The incubator, she told the citizens, would mean more jobs, more businesses, and “a much stronger local food system.”

The night of the vote, 500 citizens attended, Raiola recalls, so many that the council had to relocate the group to a local middle school to take the vote. “Only four people raised their hands with a no,” Raiola says. The “yeses” were overwhelming and cheered their support.

Raiola also applied for a $3 million loan from the USDA in order to renovate the building.

“About a year before we opened, we were getting the word out that if you want to start a food business, Hope & Main is going to be the place to do it,” Raiola says. “Before that, you would have to go to a church or rent out someone’s restaurant. We opened an office down the street and started teaching classes for how to start a food business—basically, how do you take your grandmother’s pasta sauce recipe or your great pickle recipe and turn it into a brand and turn that brand into a business."

"It’s not just giving them a kitchen" she continues. "You must give them an education, too. Someone might know how to make sauce in a five-gallon pot, but now you must make 100 gallons at a time, you must turn it into a product, you have to figure out what you’re going to charge for that product, you have to know how your brand is different from someone else’s brand—and you have to get licensed and insured, too.”

On the day Hope & Main opened in 2014, it welcomed an inaugural class of 30 startups.

As for that meal-delivery service? Raiola never did open it. (“There are other people who have started similar businesses,” Raiola explains. “Cooking our own food is going the way of sewing our own clothes in this country.”) But she has no regrets—and really, how could she? With 155 growing businesses under the belt of her organization, Raiola has nothing left to prove. “I like to call us a startup of startups in a startup industry,” Raiola laughs.

Here, Raiola shares the secrets to her success, which you, too, can apply in your own life.

1. “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary,” Raiola believes, repeating a turn of phrase her father would often say. “I think successful people often make what they do look easy, but they didn’t rise out of some primordial soup overnight to become successful. They worked hard. And you have to be prepared to work hard to accomplish something too. I don’t think it’s the smartest person in the room who always wins—I think it’s the person with grit and resilience that is able to stay the course.”

2. “Don’t judge your work-life balance at 5 p.m. every day,” Raiola encourages. “You have to take a longer view. I think women are made to feel constantly guilty about working hard and not balancing that devotion to work with their families or a spa day or whatever it is that is supposed to go on the other side of this scale. But I don’t believe women or anyone should feel like they have to judge their work-life balance at 5 p.m. every day. You have to look at the many chapters of a lifetime because there are times you need to sacrifice and work hard to accomplish something worthwhile—to make your sacrifice mean something.”

3. “Getting it wrong is the first step to getting it right,” Raiola promises. “Lean into the problems that arise from the many mistakes and many bad decisions that you will make in business and be fully accountable—don’t be a victim, don’t blame someone else, and don’t waste your energy on what someone else did or didn’t do. Think instead about what you can do differently and focus on the problem—not the people—and keep working that out.”

4. “It’s not always possible to follow your passion,” says Raiola. “Many times in life we have to grow where we’re planted. If you look around, I bet you’re going to find something close to you, something important, that you can leave better than you found it. And that, to me, is living a life of consequence. I saw the potential in this idea and was very motivated by the impact that I thought Hope & Main could have for Rhode Island. It wasn’t obvious at that time that this would be successful, but people were looking for hope on Main street and I felt so compelled to deliver it. It wasn’t about the thing I was most passionate about when I set out to start my own food business, but it became this really compelling project.”