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Food makes a natural community development tool


If it's true that the quickest way to people's hearts is through their stomach, then it's no surprise why Champs Diner in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, is beloved by so many in the community. Champs was not always a local winner; the restaurant suffered a few knockout punches throughout the years until it was rescued in 2015 by NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley.

Four slices of toast, fried potatoes and a spinach-onion omelette featured on a bar

Since rolling out its first menu in the 1930s, the diner has been a fixture in the community for more than 50 years. In the 1980s, it was relocated to make way for a chain doughnut and coffee establishment. The diner's new home for the next 15 years was an abandoned field.

"We discovered it sitting on a highway embankment on Route 95 in Providence. We knew immediately it would make the perfect 'anchor' to a mixed-use development we were building in our target neighborhood in Woonsocket," recalls Joe Garlick, NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley Executive Director. "In addition to its history and local cultural significance, we saw it as a great opportunity to create some new jobs for the neighborhood."

NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley eventually sold the diner to seasoned, local restauranteurs Bethany and Eric Marsland. The Marslands, who've been in the restaurant business for more than 40 years, breathed new life into the former lunch car and once again began serving daily specials and service with a smile.

A woman wearing a red shirt with text that reads "Champ's diner""This is all we've ever done. It's the seventh restaurant in the city we've owned. This is our life. NeighborWorks knew I could do this work. It was a wonderful partnership. The diner is doing very well," says Bethany Marsland, Champ owner.

One of the top sellers on the menu is the NeighborWorks omelet. The recipe was cooked up by one of nonprofit's board members, Randy Sacilotto. The $8 breakfast favorite, which is served with home fries, includes chouri├žo (a Portuguese-style sausage), cheese, onions and kale.

"The NeighborWorks omelet is a big seller; I sell a lot of that. It's not an item I would ever consider taking off the menu because it does so well," comments Marsland.

Marsland has a special connection with the diner that goes beyond just business. "I used to sit on that No. 5 stool when I was a little girl. I would tell the owners I wanted to own the place when I grew up," she reminisces.

The diner has done more than just make a little girl's dreams come true; it also serves as a model for successful and profitable community building.

"Food is the best community-building and engagement tool available to community development practitioners," says Garlick. "Combining it with our real estate development efforts is a natural fit when you can make the numbers work. It also doesn't hurt when you have an iconic, quirky and beloved local landmark as part of the mix."

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