Friday, February 24, 2006

Doing Well by Doing Good - Alex Ray, The Common Man Family of Restaurants

Shining Stars
Doing Well by Doing Good
Alex Ray

An Interview with Alex Ray
The Common Man Family of Restaurants

By Wayne D. King

The National Restaurant Association recently gave Alex Ray and his company, The Common Man, its 2004 Restaurant Neighbor Award. When the group gave the business its $5,000 prize, Ray promptly announced he was giving it, and another $5,000, to a homeless shelter in Plymouth, NH.

The cynic would say it was a great PR stunt. Well, sure . . . but it was more. It was, in fact, a measure of the man. Few in New Hampshire show more community spirit and outright generosity than Alex Ray.

Winston Churchill once said that “Character is what you are when the lights are out” and when it comes to Alex Ray he gives whether the lights are on or off. Sure its good business . . . In fact its great business, and over the years Ray has devoted more and more of his energy to good works. More important he has fostered a culture of community within his organization. He believes, and his success seems to prove, that this is more effective than all the ads he could run.

Right about now Ray will be reaching to put this magazine down . . . with his usual modest flourish he’ll be waving his hand and shrugging in an “it just makes sense” sort of way. “So what’s the big deal?” I think after you read this, you’ll see just what the big deal is, and why we call Alex Ray a “Shining Star” in the Heart of New Hampshire.
If I Were a Bird

Heart of NH: Are you from New Hampshire originally?
Alex Ray: No, but I did the majority of my growing up here. My family moved from New Jersey in 1959 to the Mount Washington Valley. I graduated from Kennett High School in 1965.

In the early sixties I was working at the “Top-Up” hut at Mt. Cranmore flipping burgers in a little cabin at the top of the mountain. Herb Schneider was running the mountain and the facilities manager was a fellow named “Hot-Rod” Holmes. I worked directly for Ruth Leslie and with Ralph Smith who ran the cabin at the top of the mountain. Ralph had trained the local chipmunks which was quite a hit with all of the skiers and tourists.

Heart of NH: So you experienced the NH Ski industry in its infancy?
Alex Ray: Yes, working at the top of the mountain was great. I’ll never forget the first time I ever saw a snow machine, it was an old Polaris ridden to the top of the mountain by (the legendary) Carrol Reed. He had been injured in a skiing accident but still was active and had started the area’s first ski school.

Dance of the Lupine and Birch
Heart of NH: How did you get started in the restaurant business?
Alex Ray: In 1966 I began two years of Culinary school in New Haven Connecticut after which I ran an institutional program for the Canteen Corporation. We were servicing accounts all over New England. One day my manager was talking to me and he told me: “You won’t be here in a year.” I was shocked! I asked him if I wasn’t doing a good job, what I could do better . . . he wasn’t displeased with me, but he made a point of telling me that I “wasn’t corporate material”. It wasn’t long after that that I moved back up to New Hampshire. I was working as a laborer in construction but wanting to get back into the business. I had noticed this old barn, owned by a fellow named Warner Morrill in the town of Campton. It was adjacent to a mobile home park that he owned, so I knocked on his door and asked if I could rent the barn to create a restaurant. Morrill said no, because then he “wouldn’t have any place to keep his tractors”. . . so I went on up the road to Thornton where Al Conkey had a barn that he held a weekly auction in. I asked Al if he wanted to rent the barn. When he asked how much I wanted to pay, I told him nothing but that I’d fix the place up and he agreed! On December 26, 1969 we opened the Auction Barn restaurant. It ran for one winter, made three thousand dollars and then we closed it. It really was stupid and fun, but it worked!

Meanwhile, two of the areas most prominent businessmen, Al Moulton and Dennis Keating had been in to see the restaurant a few times and had taken an interest in the business. They went to old Warner Morrill, who had refused me, and they bought his barn and created what would come to be called “The Draughty Barn Restaurant”. Ironically, they asked me to manage it. It was a funky place where we served peanuts and encouraged people to toss their shells on the floor – we use to measure the success of a night by the depth of peanut shells. . . I remember once they were two and a half inches deep!

Webster's Confidence
Heart of NH: But you must have been feeling somewhat frustrated . . . after all, the place wasn’t yours.
Alex Ray: It was 1970, I was broke, it was a job. But then I heard about this place in Holderness called the Pine Shore. The fellow who owned it was looking to rent it. So I went and saw him. He had a couple of other people looking at it and told me that he’d rent to the first one who came up with $1,200 he wanted. So I went back to Al Conkey to ask his advice. He told me to go see Ken Bartlett at Plymouth Guaranty Savings Bank. I reminded Al that I had no money and said that Ken Bartlett wouldn’t even know who I was. Al just looked at me in a sort of fatherly way and said: “Ken Bartlett knows EVERYONE”.

As it turns out Ken Bartlett was an old fashioned banker, he sort of led two lives, the first dressed in his suit and sitting at his desk and the other, during off hours, casually cruising around the area to keep his finger on the pulse of the community. The bank was actually in the same building with another local bank at the time, so I went in and spoke with Ken Bartlett. He told me that because they were a savings bank, by law they could not lend money for a commercial enterprise. Then, just as I was getting ready to leave he told me to come back after lunch . .. . maybe there was something he could do.

I proceeded to the nearest pay phone and called the owner of the Pine Shore. I told him I had the money and he’d have it the next day. Though I didn’t have a clue where it was going to come from, I just didn’t want to lose the place.

I came back after lunch and Ken Bartlett handed me a check for $1,200., written from his own account. He’d gone home for lunch with his wife, as he did every day, discussed it with her, and decided to make a personal loan.

Heart of NH: So that was your start, but it couldn’t have been too much longer before you started the Common Man Restaurant in Ashland.
Alex Ray: We got the Pine Shore running and I found this funky place on the main street of Ashland. It was a mess, but it was a cool place. I went back to Ken Bartlett again to borrow money to start a restaurant in Ashland. . . of course he reminded me that his bank didn’t make commercial loans and he encouraged me to walk across the room to the commercial lenders at the Pemigewasset National Bank. I started to walk over there and then turned around and poked my head back into his office, knocking on the doorframe and said “Mr. Bartlett, let’s start again, I’m Alex Ray and I’d like to borrow money to buy a home in Ashland”. Ken gave me this stern look and then told me to come back the next day. Whereupon he told me what I should offer the owner and the next thing I knew, I owned a home.

Wonalancet Mindscape           Cards & Posters                  Fine Art Prints

Heart of NH: So how did you manage to start the restaurant without the capital?Alex Ray: Pine Shore was only open in the summer, so I was still working construction part time, so every night I’d come home with all the sheetrock corners and ends that were considered waste and room by room we “jig-sawed” together walls with lots of mud. In the winter we’d move all the restaurant equipment from Pine Shore to the Common Man and then in the summer we’d move it back to Pine Shore. We lived upstairs and opened the Common Man downstairs.

Heart of NH: You are well known for your commitment to the local communities, do you think these experiences planted that seed?
Alex Ray: Truth is, I couldn’t have made it without local help. Back in those days they called them “Character Loans” but it wasn’t just the loans, it was the support from folks throughout the community that kept us going.

Wind in the Washline Haiku
Heart of NH: Those restaurants were only the beginning for you though…Alex Ray: Well, we didn’t add another restaurant until 1986. We went slowly and conservatively. In 1986 we added the Lincoln Common Man. Then in 1987 we bought the Concord Howard Johnson’s. I had found this great little funky diner in Salisbury, Massachusetts that I wanted to put in front of the HoJo’s but the city wouldn’t let me, so we just made the HoJo’s look like a diner and added all the little touches so you couldn’t even tell.

In 1989 we started the Italian Farmhouse in Plymouth and in 1991 we finally found a place for our Diner in Tilton. In 1996 we created the Common Man Windham and then we bought an old mill in Plymouth and created the Common Man Inn and Spa and Fosters Steakhouse. We’re now in the process of creating another Common Man off exit 11 in Merrimack where we purchased Hannah Jack’s.

Heart of NH: So there’s more on the horizon for the Common Man?Alex Ray: Well, there are two things about that. We intend to grow conservatively and we intend to stay here in New Hampshire.

Heart of NH: What is it about doing business here that makes you stay?Alex Ray: I’m so glad that I chose to do business here in New Hampshire instead of someplace else. For one thing, you can pick up the phone at any time and speak with a department head or an elected official, and get answers! Try that in any other place – like New York!

Whisper of a Winter Wood Haiku
But it’s also the spirit of this place. You know, you read about how New Hampshire folks don’t contribute as much to charity as people in other states, but at the same time we have a very high rate of volunteerism. That’s reflected in our company philosophy as well. Its much more useful to communities and better for the company’s image if we give time more often than we give money. In the last few weeks several of our restaurants have done community related fundraising work. We have worked very hard to establish a culture of community within the company.

Heart of NH: Do you personally make the decisions about what causes to support?Alex Ray: No. Absolutely not. Each restaurant team is empowered to make its own decisions about where the community priorities should be and then they act on it.

Heart of NH: And this is your primary approach to marketing the businesses?Alex Ray: Good marketing, in my opinion, is a formula that mixes good performance with good works. In other words, if you have a good product and people feel good about coming to your place and the staff are proud to work in the company, you have a formula for success that isn’t just effective – but feels good. Our business is built, not on glitzy ad campaigns, but on people power. . . a little Yankee frugality, a sense of community, and a whole lot of hard work makes the difference for us.

Reprinted from Heart of New Hampshire Magazine 2006
Since this interview Alex Ray has gone on to develop the Flying Monkey Theatre in Plymouth, The Barn on the Pemi, The Italian Farmhouse, The Common Man Restaurant in Claremont, The Common Man Inn in Claremont, and The Common Man Roadside Restaurants at NH Rest Areas. He continues to threaten to retire but shows no signs of making good on that threat.

The Common Man Family of Restaurants:

About Wayne D. King: Wayne King is an author, artist, activist and recovering politician. A three term State Senator, 1994 Democratic nominee for Governor, former publisher of Heart of New Hampshire Magazine and CEO of MOP Environmental Solutions Inc., and now host of two new Podcasts - The Radical Centrist ( and NH Secrets, Legends and Lore. His art is exhibited nationally in galleries and he has published three books of his images and a novel "Sacred Trust" a vicarious, high voltage adventure to stop a private powerline all available on He lives in Rumney at the base of Rattlesnake Ridge. His website is: . You can help spread the word by following and supporting him at

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