Bristol resident Lisa Raiola is best known as the founder of Hope & Main, the food incubator and industrial kitchen based in Warren. She has appeared in scores of articles, mostly about Hope & Main and the legion of culinary entrepreneurs who have graduated from its training program. In photographs, she appears confident and fashionable, the sage architect of a successful startup.
Hope & Main has grown significantly since its opening in 2014. The number of business owners who got their start at the food incubator has climbed to 450. And a new venture, the Downtown Makers’ Marketplace, has opened in Providence, serving breakfast and lunch and selling food products developed in the Warren headquarters.
With each milestone, Raiola reappears in the media, remarking on small business empowerment and Hope & Main’s impact on Rhode Island.
But who is Lisa Raiola? If you only know her as a local food-enterprise guru, her life story will be full of surprises. She didn’t cut her teeth in the restaurant industry. She’s not a Rhode Island native. She has no Italian ancestry. Instead, her biography is full of twists and serendipities.
Here are some unguessable highlights from Raiola’s life:
Born Lisa Wurtzel, Raiola grew up in a Jewish family in a mostly Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia. Her father was the founder of an investment company and her mother was a homemaker.
Raiola so embraced her heritage that she considered going to rabbinical school.
“I was pretty religious,” she recalls. “I like Jewish philosophy, culture, family. I was probably more spiritually religious than my parents were.”
Raiola’s upbringing in Philadelphia remains a point of pride. She can rattle off decades worth of her favorite players from the Eagles, Flyers and 76ers. She still appreciates the diversity of the city and its many ethnic neighborhoods.
When she was 13, Raiola’s family moved to the suburbs in Bucks County, which promised a better school system, but she fondly remembers those formative years in the Center City neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“That city never really leaves you,” she says.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Brown
Raiola enrolled at Brown University at age 16, not long after earning her driver’s license. She had considered becoming a physician, but she ended up studying biomedical ethics.
“I was more interested in systems and ideas,” she says. “Health-care administration, even medical ethics, were pretty new fields. Health-care was kind of a cottage industry 40 years ago. Building new health-care systems was more interesting to me than treating patients.”
She raised her kids in a multifaith household
Raiola’s married name came from her first husband, Jimmy Raiola, who grew up Catholic. They met at Brown, where Raiola was an assistant football coach. Before their wedding, Raiola took a “Pre-Cana” course, which offered practical advice about marriage and Catholicism.
There was both a priest and a rabbi at their wedding, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia.
When they started to consider how to raise their children, they decided that their daughter, Stefanie, would be raised Jewish, while their son, Austen, would be raised Catholic.
“My parents never thought it was a great idea,” Raiola says with a laugh. “But we learned a lot about each other’s religions. I always said, ‘It’s my job to give you a religious education. It’s not my job to give you religion.’ To this day, I would do it the exact same way.”
Health-care administration was her first career
In 1991, Raiola earned a master’s degree in epidemiology and health-care administration from Boston University. For the next 10 years, she worked for Harvard Community Health Plan, first as executive director of human resources and organizational development, then as creator and director of the organization’s ethics program.
In 2000, Raiola started teaching classes in public health and medical ethics at Brown.
Raiola is a cancer survivor
Raiola was diagnosed with cancer in 2003, and underwent treatment for several years. The symptoms finally prevented her from working, and Raiola began to focus on nutrition and its effects on the body.
“What can I do to take back my health?” she remembers thinking. “I thought a lot about food. Food is something I can really change in my life. And I did – I radically changed my diet.”
But the cancer treatments left Raiola so exhausted, it was nearly impossible to visit a supermarket or make meals. This situation sparked a groundbreaking idea: What if homebound people could order a healthy meal online and have it delivered to their doorstep? This was in 2009, when services like DoorDash didn’t yet exist.
Founding Hope & Main was kind of an accident
Emboldened by her concept, Raiola looked around for a space. She spotted a small building in the East Bay, but she wasn’t sure if it was in Warren or Bristol.
When Raiola went to Warren Town Hall to ask about the building, she was told about a much larger structure that was for sale: a former schoolhouse, built in 1915.
When Raiola toured the property, she said she felt overwhelmed by its size.
“I needed 1,500 square feet. This was 18,000 square feet,” she says.
But as she looked around the voluminous rooms, she thought: I’ll bet there are a lot of people like me, who are interested in starting a food business but don’t exactly know how to begin.
In a flash, she dreamed up the phrase “food incubator,” not realizing that the concept had already been successful in many other American cities.
As she puts it: “This project found me.”
Raiola doesn’t consider herself a foodie
Although Raiola is conscious about the food she eats and maintains a largely Ayurvedic diet, she doesn’t consider herself a gourmet and isn’t fussy in her tastes. What she loves about Hope & Main is its impact on the community, she says.
“Maybe if I had been [in the food industry], I might not have done it, because it’s so hard,” she says with a knowing chuckle. “But what I realized is, sometimes you teach best what you most need to learn.
“I thought of Hope & Main as primary care for food businesses: We are going to help you in every way to empower you to start this business and do it affordably and accessibly.”
ROBERT ISENBERG (email@example.com) is the multimedia producer for the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island and a writer for Jewish Rhode Island.