The Common Man Restaurants gain a few new siblings.Some people keep adopting kids. Alex Ray keeps revitalizing old buildings that become part of his Common Man Family of Restaurants. It will soon be his 40th anniversary in the restaurant business.What started in Ashland in 1971 has grown into a constellation of 18 restaurants, with most located up and down I-93. In 2009 Ray opened two restaurants, one in Portsmouth, the other in Claremont. “The Portsmouth opportunity was just obvious; I couldn’t say no,” he says.The Claremont restaurant is truly a shining star in many ways — the setting, the scope of the project and what it meant to a small town in need of a boost.The Common Man Claremont and Common Man Inn, next door, were not just another business opportunity for Ray: “It was the start of a bold project, one that hopefully will help revitalize that city.”Ray was drawn into the project initially by Dick Nault of Manchester. He said no three times before actually visiting Claremont and seeing how beautiful it was. “It was a town that HUD, thankfully, had never found,” he says. “The best thing about it was that it wasn’t ruined by ’70s-style redevelopment. There are broad streets with original buildings, an opera house and brick mill buildings along the Sugar River.”Ray eventually brought in long-time associate and hotel developer Rusty McLear, an architect from Vermont and a financier. Together they toured the proposed mill buildings for sale by the city. Walking through years of pigeon droppings with Claremont officials in the dilapidated former textile mills was, Ray says, quite sobering: “It was a quiet ride home.” It was clear to all that the project was, in common terminology, a money pit. “But I love saving old buildings, and the town really needed the boost.”Helping also in the daunting process was the development board of Claremont. With their positive attitude and financing assistance, it was a win-win for all involved. The city floated bonds for necessary physical infrastructure that are to be repaid by the taxes generated by the Common Man and partners.Nancy Merrill, director of planning and development in Claremont, couldn’t be more thrilled with the way the project turned out. “Our offices are directly across the river — the building progress was like watching magic happen each week. Alex just gets old buildings. He knew what he wanted to do when he first walked through.”That was in 2007. Today, Ray says, the 36-room hotel and restaurant in Claremont is a sound business venture. “My head is still swirling about the money we spent, but we are doing 100 percent better than we projected. And together, with Red River Computer Company [partner and tenant], we have added 200 jobs to the local economy.”Rusty McLear says the Common Man Family of Restaurants are so successful because “they offer great value, provide an interesting environment and they are not pretentious. People are just comfortable dining there — he has a very loyal clientele.”Indeed, from Lincoln to Windham, people settle into soft sofas in lounges tucked into the eaves of barn-like structures — all buildings reclaimed by Ray. The Claremont Common Man Restaurant has the hallmark exposed brick and beams plus towering mill windows that let light flood into the dining area for Sunday brunch. The room also has the eclectic collection of antiques, but displayed with a bit more restraint. Comman Man Restaurant Vice President Diane Downing has put her heart and soul into collecting artifacts for the restaurants since the 1970s.As charming as the inside of the Claremont Common Man Restaurant and Hotel is, the setting on the Sugar River is spectacular. A huge patio attached to the restaurant hovers on the southern bank, offering diners a dramatic setting with the surging river below. Nearby, a footbridge connects the restaurant and hotel to the northern bank, the Claremont Visitor’s Center and more parking.The value offered at Common Man Restaurants comes in part from economies of scale. Brandon Miller runs the commissary in Holderness, where all desserts and breads are baked, and supplies are warehoused for runs to all Common Man restaurants.Miller is also a member of the Farm to Restaurant Connection and works with a local farm to supply seasonal vegetables and greens. He finds if he can give suppliers enough notice they can produce the volume required to supply all the restaurants. Pulled pork, house-made bacon and pancetta from local pork bellies is happening, too. A new ice cream is being formulated with all-natural products from Hatchland Dairy in North Haverhill.To make it really local, each chef at the seven Common Man restaurants has a kitchen garden on site for fresh herbs.Always a friend of the environment, Ray hates the concept of moving plastic water bottles around. Last year most of the Common Man restaurants added an Acquahealth water filtering system to improve the aesthetic qualities of the tap water. The water is bottled in glass and sold for a reasonable $4 for 32 ounces with a choice of flat or sparkling. Not only does this keep the water local, a percent of the sales is donated to the N.H. Food Bank.After 40 years Ray is ready to stop his involvement in the day-to-day workings of his empire: “I am surrounding myself with competence so I can step away.” Ray has recently spent time in Haiti and wants to help people with housing and prosthetics. “With our single-digit profit I want to help the community at large — and that includes the world. Kids without limbs — they need help.”What’s next for Ray? He purchased an old movie theater in downtown Plymouth and is in the middle of a three-month renovation that will add space for live performances. Christened “The Flying Monkey,” it is another labor of love for Ray — another way to give back to the community. Add another sibling to the Family.
This article appears in the May 2010 issue of New Hampshire Magazine