What’s more Rhode Island than wieners and coffee milk? Well, what about Del’s and Kenyon Corn Meal clam cakes? All four have been staples at the Rhode Island pavilion at the Big E on the Eastern States Exposition grounds that open Sept. 15 in West Springfield, Mass.
But Rhode Island Commerce Corporation that leases space in the Rhode Island hall thinks beer would do more for Rhode Island and, in the end, attract people to the Ocean State. That’s what Peter Xiarhos says he was told when Commerce refused to renew his lease for the 17-day exposition expected to draw more than one million people.
Matt Sheaff, spokesman for Commerce said Tuesday that “the team re-evaluates” vendors at the Rhode Island fair building annually and the decision was made that the Isle Craft Brewers Guild would occupy the space Xiarhos has operated from.
Xiarhos has been running Sam’s New York System at Wilde’s Corners across from Thayer Arena on Sandy Lane since his father, Sam, turned it over to him and his brother, George, in 1998. Sam’s has been a part of Warwick for almost 50 years.
Xiarhos said he recently received a certified letter from Commerce that his lease wasn’t being renewed. After five years of working the exposition he would be out. He estimated he has invested at least $10,000 in the space including a hot water heater, sinks, ice machine and other appliances. Those improvements stay in the building, a replica of the Old State House in Newport that is locked up at the end of the exposition and remains closed until the following year. For the privilege of selling wieners and coffee milk and showcasing two Rhode Island favorites, Xiarhos pays $4,000 in rent.
Sheaff said that Commerce went with the brewers guild because they represent a number of Rhode Island breweries. He said 12 brewers would be represented at the Rhode Island building, which he said had 1.2 million visitors last year.
“We had to make a tough decision,” Sheaff said. He said Commerce is looking at “how we are going to hit a new audience.” He defined that group as millennials, adding that there is mounting interest in local breweries and they are an attraction that would bring people to Rhode Island.
Do people come to Rhode Island for wieners and coffee milk because they sampled them at the Big E?
Xiarhos can’t say for certain. From his perspective wieners and coffee milk help make the state different. He said he’s watched people bite into a wiener and say, ‘I’ve never tasted anything like this.’ He’s also had Rhode Islanders stop in at the Big E to discover his wieners, some even from Warwick, and then become regular customers.
Xiarhos wonders how beer could be a better fit. He said there is a craft beer outlet across from the Rhode Island building. He suggests if Commerce is set on showcasing Rhode Island beer, there’s room for a beer tent on the grounds.
“They could accommodate both of us,” he said. “Beer and wieners go together.”
Xiarhos has reached out to Commerce and the governor’s office. He has also talked with his attorney to see what can be done. He said he got an immediate return call from the governor’s office, who told him they would be check into the matter. He visited Commerce in person and was informed he would have to make an appointment, but that didn’t happen.
“Rhode Island Commerce is ducking me,” he said. He speculates they expect him to shut up and leave.
Xiarhos, who works the Big E with one other worker, said the event is “definitely worth it.” He doesn’t want to lose the business or what he’s invested into it.
“I do quite well there. All those years of building it up and then to have it taken away,” he said.
Other vendors in the Rhode Island building are Tucker Seafood of North Kingstown, Lady Ann Candies of Warwick, National Gold and Diamond of Warwick, Bad Dog Tools of Bristol, My Little Town, The Magic Sceptre and Cabral Embroidery. The Association of RI Authors and Ocean State Artisans are also represented, with a variety of local authors and artisans showcasing their talents throughout the 17-day fair. The Rhode Island State Police provide safety information.