New Jersey native Mark Zimmer arrived in Rhode Island over 30 years ago as a URI student. An accounting major, he headed back to the Garden State after graduation. But the siren call of the southern part of the state lured him back.
By then, he decided accounting wasn’t for him. Weekend jobs in food service during his time at URI stoked his food entrepreneurial fire. So, Zimmer opened The Picnic Basket in April of 1993.
“You have to understand, back then there was nothing here,” he says. “Not even Crazy Burger.”
The deli took off. This first summer, his mom, dad, and sister made weekend pilgrimages from New Jersey to help him through the busy season.
Building on the rich deli tradition of New Jersey, Zimmer wanted nothing but the best and freshest ingredients. “We use Boar’s Head meats and make fresh baguettes for each sandwich,” he says. “We brew Illy coffee, so you can get a good cup of coffee with your breakfast sandwich in the morning.” Their various soups and salads are made from scratch daily. Even the pickles are sliced to order.
The 48 creative sandwiches on the menu reflect the local community that frequents the year-round establishment. “A lot of the sandwich ideas come from our customers,” he says. “If we like it, we’ll put it on the menu.” Every sandwich is named in honor of its creator.
The Picnic Basket recently leveled up again, with the addition of manager Kevin Spearin to the team. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Boston, and with a swath of cooking experience behind him (Davio’s, Renaissance Hotel, Whole Foods), Spearin spends his mornings concocting new menu items like a Vegan Tomato Soup with homemade focaccia croutons, and Lemon Squares.
One new menu item is the Cuban Sandwich. With the recent purchase of a panini press (“our customers kept asking if we could press their sandwiches,” explains Zimmer), a traditional Cuban sandwich is now on the menu.
After marinating a pork loin in vinegar and spices overnight, the meat is seared and slow roasted throughout the morning. Slices of the pork, along with ham and Swiss cheese, are stuffed in a ciabatta roll, which is slathered with yellow mustard and topped with pickle slices. The sandwich is brushed with melted butter, wrapped in parchment, and then put in the press, where it’s grilled to a melty deliciousness.
With a six-burner stove, one oven, and, now, the panini press, The Picnic Basket’s small-but-mighty kitchen makes upwards of 400 sandwiches on a typical summer day, a far cry from the 50 or so the first summer they opened.
In an age of “grab-and-go” convenience food, making everything to order takes extra time. But the few extra minutes are worth it. “There’s an art to making a really good sandwich,” Zimmer says. “You don’t want to rush that.”