By 5 a.m. some mornings, Jessica Silver Wood is at Caliente Mexican Grill preparing fresh chicken and steak, as well as guacamole, salsa and salad dressing from scratch.
“After lunch everything has to be remade, so it’s always fresh,” said Wood.
The dedication to fresh, local food at reasonable prices didn’t start out to be a profitable way to manage Caliente, but volume and efficiency have made it so, said Wood, who owns the Mexican grill and six other businesses in her Fire & Water Restaurant Group.
Caliente is one of three restaurants Wood owns in the Kingston Emporium in South Kingstown, where the clientele is mostly from the campus community at the University of Rhode Island. Burger Shack and UMelt, a grilled-cheese eatery, are also in the Emporium and are run with the same emphasis on fresh, local food.
Wood, who is from Amherst, Mass., worked in restaurants through college and long had the desire to launch her own business.
The Fire & Water Restaurant Group grew from one concession near the water, at Old Silver Beach in Falmouth, Mass. She and her business partner and husband, Ben Wood, heard that a concession was up for bid by the town and they got it.
“We were looking for something to do in the summers,” said Wood, who was 24 years old and in graduate school at the time. “We took a little gamble, but we paid it back after the first summer.”
That one concession expanded to another one at a second Falmouth beach. When they wanted to expand to a year-round business, Wood recalled her trips to URI.
“I remember in college, as a runner, going to the Ryan Center and URI and being dropped off at the Kingston Emporium,” said Wood. That gave her an idea.
Her strategy was to do some market research in Rhode Island, telling Kingston businesspeople that she was working on a graduate-school project on economic development in college towns.
“It was a little, white lie,” said Wood.
“There wasn’t a Mexican restaurant in the Kingston Emporium,” said Wood. “I wrote a business plan from the information I got from those calls.”
Caliente opened in 2005. It took a while to get systems organized for efficiency, but that’s what eventually made the 750-square-foot Mexican grill profitable.
In addition to the two Falmouth beach concessions, the three storefronts in Kingston Emporium – Caliente, Burger Shack and UMelt – Wood opened a second UMelt on Weybosset Street in Providence.
The seventh business, Wildwood Catering, is Wood’s favorite, she said.
“I just find food really inspiring. I like to be able to transform everything from Rhode Island into beautiful food, and that’s Wildwood,” said Wood.
It might seem like a busy schedule, managing seven food businesses – which include 40 year-round, full-time employees, a figure that swells to 60 in summer – but there’s more. Jessica and Ben Wood have two young sons.
An important part of Wood’s restaurant work now encompasses more than preparing and serving food. It’s about dedication to local sourcing and the people who produce the food.
“Rhode Island has oceanfront farmland. We have Matunuck oysters. We have cattle farms in Jamestown. We have Sweet Berry Farm in Middletown where we go pick berries,” said Wood. “If we don’t start participating in keeping these farms as part of the local economy, they’ll be condominiums.”