Eric Handwerger was born into the restaurant business – in fact, his parents met at his father’s old restaurant in Providence, The Left Bank. After hopping across the country, meeting the woman of his dreams and having two beautiful girls, he returned to RI and re-entered the restaurant scene. Recognizing that late nights and irregular schedules didn’t suit the family man he wanted to be, he decided to open Ocean State Sandwich Company in Johnston.
Aside from the family-friendly hours, why open a sandwich shop?
I wanted to create something that is uniquely Rhode Island using products made here. I want to be as well known as Del’s. Opening a sandwich shop has given me my life back from working late nights and getting home in the wee hours of the morning. I have two little girls I can’t help smiling about. Now, I get to watch them grow up.
You must have a special affinity towards sandwiches.
My family loves sandwiches. We will make a sandwich out of anything. If there are leftover spaghetti and meatballs, it will be a sandwich.
Just how local are some of your ingredients?
I live four miles from work. If I’m not picking up bread from Buono’s Bakery first thing, I’m picking up fresh eggs from Stamp Farm. Both are right around the corner.
What’s the philosophy behind Ocean State?
The first thing we said, besides sourcing locally, was to do things ourselves. We roast our own turkey and make our own roast beef. Because we make it ourselves it will taste different. We wanted to make the best sandwiches with the best ingredients. So we make some things ourselves. As far as sourced ingredients, I could have bought any mortadella. But I tried the one from Daniele, Inc (in Burrillville) and it was the best. Based on the way we wanted to do things and the price point we wanted to work with, I can’t do all local. So I blend local ingredients in with everything else. It’s a menu I can stand behind and be proud of.
Now, you’re not going to have a great sandwich without the right bread…
If you put great ingredients between two great pieces of bread, you have something out of this world. The Bouno bread we use is a soft nine-inch soft roll with such a good texture.
We do offer a gluten-free bread. After tasting and tasting and tasting, I decided that if I was gluten-free, this is the bread I would have. People love it. Any sandwich can be made on gluten-free bread.
Tell me about some of your specialty spreads.
The first we make in house in a sun-dried tomato mayo. Which is basically what it sounds like – a blend of mayo and high quality tomatoes. However, the real star is our sun-dried tomato and banana pepper relish. When we embarked on the great grinder tasting of 2012 –we were trying out all the different grinders we could find so that we could make the best one – we recognized that many sweet pepper relishes overwhelmed the sandwich. So, after experimenting with combinations of different kinds of peppers, sun-dried tomatoes and seasonings, and taking into account that it needs to be spreadable, we came up with this. It typically goes on the Ultimate Grinder.
I hear you have a French onion soup inspired sandwich.
One of my all-time favorite soups is French onion. Using the equipment we have, we can’t execute the soup the way I want to. So, with some creativity, we use great caramelized onions and melted Swiss, and you have a great sandwich. It’s so unique. It’s that great sweet onion flavor with the caraway seeds from our rye bread that is a perfect match. The Swiss is the glue that holds it together.
How do you capture the summer on your menu?
With our corn salad. It is a corn salad with fresh tarragon, red onion and a little celery, rice wine vinegar and olive oil. I came up with this when I had a corn salad that had a little bit of basil in it. I thought that it could be better. So we played. We played a lot.