Eating With the Presidential Candidates

On the First-in-the-Nation presidential primary’s 100th anniversary, the path to the White House still must wind its way through New Hampshire’s restaurants, diners and ice cream stands

What do you do when a borderline hostile crowd is trying to drown out your prepared speech? Try diverting their attention by talking about yummy chicken tenders.

That strategy temporarily worked for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, when she addressed thousands of New Hampshire party activists last fall at Manchester’s Verizon Center. The Florida congresswoman’s talk was interrupted several times by loud chants of “More debates!” as supporters of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley accused her of rigging the system to benefit the more-famous Hillary Clinton.

“I’ve always been impressed by what makes New Hampshire voters unique and by your high expectations,” Wasserman Schultz pandered. “The way you open up your living rooms and hear the candidates out. The way you sit in a diner booth over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation. The way you share with them your greatest hopes and your deepest concerns — while eating some of the best chicken tenders in the country!”

The DNC chairperson didn’t need to name the restaurant. Most people in the auditorium had witnessed enough politician visits there to immediately get the reference.

Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, owner of the Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester, later took the stage and acknowledged the compliment. “I heard someone before talk chicken tenders,” he said coyly. “We have great ice cream too.” Then he transitioned to his prepared remarks about health care and gay marriage.

How odd is it for a restaurant to get product placement in a political speech? Pappas, whose great-grandfather Charlie founded the Backroom in 1917, says he’s flattered.

“We enjoy being a well-known spot on the campaign trail,” he says. “We sell thousands of pounds a week of those tenders. John McCain came in one time, grabbed one off someone’s plate and ate it!”

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (just one year older than the Puritan Backroom), the New Hampshire primary is famous for its retail politicking: face-to-face campaigning that counterbalances large-scale events in auditoriums and even stadiums. Advocates for preserving the state’s first-in-the-nation voting status argue that New Hampshire proves that handshakes still matter in a world increasingly dominated by Facebook likes and YouTube clicks.

Cynics will argue that everything in politics is carefully staged, especially meet-and-greets at coffee shops and diners where politicians can mingle with “average Americans.” While it’s true that campaigns can stack events with friendly supporters and softball questions, unscripted moments do happen every day with the candidates.

“It’s organic. It’s legitimate,” says “Campaign Carl” Cameron, Fox News Channel’s chief political correspondent and formerly WMUR-TV’s political director. “In diners, you tend to get questions that the candidates are not accustomed to hearing and are often unique to one person’s experience. It makes a profound difference.”

“We’ve seen candidates lose their temper or be flummoxed in a situation. Retail politics provides a stage. And it’s not the debate stage where everyone has makeup, lighting and a green room. It’s about as spontaneous, unplanned and uncontrollable as it possibly can be,” he adds. “The one thing that candidates fear most is the uncertainty of an unscripted question from a real voter.”

Expecting the Unexpected

Sometimes one surprise leads to another. Jo Ling Kent of Fox Business Network recalls a visit by Vice President Joe Biden in October of 2011: “At a ‘surprise’ stop at the Tilt’n Diner, Biden hugged and kissed every customer in the whole place, doling out compliments and life advice. He snuck a few French fries from one guy’s plate. He swiveled around on his stool to chat with a middle school girl and her family. I overheard Biden telling her mother that she wasn’t allowed to date until she was 30.

“Not one minute after the apple pie and ice cream arrived, Biden dug in. But instead of putting fork to mouth, he lowered his first bite to one of the photographers crouched next to me. The whole diner erupted in laughter as the photographer took the bite. It was pure Biden,” says Kent.

Last September, Manchester resident Linda Haverman was enjoying an omelet with ham, onions and extra cheese at the Chez Vachon diner when Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul walked in the door. She was chewing her food and politely waved the presidential candidate by when he first approached, but later circled back with him at the other side of the restaurant.

Paul, who had been answering questions about the budget, the Second Amendment and ISIS all morning, received his first inquiry about Lyme Disease. Haverman, a former state toll supervisor, has been out on disability and has had a frustrating experience with doctors who don’t agree on her diagnosis.

“I told him a lot of doctors will not acknowledge it,” she says. “Lyme Disease is an epidemic and people are afraid. I was very happy with how he responded to me. He said he was aware of the disease and supported the treatment of it. I took it to mean that he supported insurance coverage for treatment, but I probably shouldn’t assume anything.”

A few tables away, Goffstown’s Claira Monier, a New Hampshire volunteer for AARP, pinned down Paul on Social Security reform. “My benefits are safe, but I do care that it continues for our children and grandchildren. He said that two-thirds of the problem can be solved by lengthening the time for when people start to collect and we also need to stop paying out for retirees who are earning $100,000 a year,” she says.

“Rand was very thoughtful and very clear. He answered my questions directly,” Monier adds. “I’ve been at events where the candidates are on a stage and we’re far back in the audience and there’s no chance to ask a question. Here, we can talk to them up close and look them in the eye.”

In the heart of New Hampshire primary season, even candidates at the bottom of the polls can bring a swarm of humanity to a local diner — pushing their luck with the fire code. Think about your favorite brunch spot on Mother’s Day and then add 50 reporters and photojournalists.

Republican Chris Christie has focused his attention on NH in hopes of generating momentum with a win or place in the first-in-the-nation primary. Photo at Chapanga’s Griddle & Grill in Milford. Photo by Ilya Mirman.

But back in April, Derry’s Stephanie Laskiewicz learned that sometimes candidates don’t visit diners for photo ops; occasionally they’re there to just eat like the rest of us. Laskiewicz and her fiancé, Michael Senechal, were sitting in window seats at MaryAnn’s Diner, a historical magnet for presidential hopefuls, when they saw “some suspicious-looking black Lincolns” pull in front.

She instantly recognized New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Laskiewicz recalls not wanting to disturb Christie’s breakfast, but went over and shook his hand as the governor was finishing up. “We asked him if he was going to run and he said he was going through New Hampshire to get a feel for how people felt about him. I was going to ask him about foreign policy, immigration or taxes, but since he was not officially running, I didn’t ask any questions like that. We told him he made a good choice in choosing the best diner in the area.”

 “You get a good idea of what these candidates are like by meeting them and seeing how they interact with the public,” she adds. “But I’m not naïve — all of them are going to be super-nice and pleasing because they are trying for the most important seat in the country.”

Diners That Could Double as Museums

If the New Jersey governor is lucky enough to ride his Union Leader endorsement to a New Hampshire primary victory, an especially large number of restaurants could install “Chris Christie Sat Here” commemorative plaques. By the end of December, he had already spent 61 days in the state and many of his “Tell It Like It Is” town meetings were held in dining venues that never hosted candidates before.

Top: Bill Clinton stands in front of his image painted on the wall of the former Merrimack Restaurant, once a popular political gathering spot. The mural, done by our contributing illustrator, Peter Noonan, has since been painted over, but memories and photos (above) endure. Top photo by Kim Walker.

Manchester’s 24/7 Red Arrow Diner, a noted favorite of native celebrities like Adam Sandler and Sarah Silverman, actually does have engraved plaques for famous visitors. Diners can press their posteriors on the very same stools that hosted former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and cross-dressing entertainer RuPaul, who made a mock bid for the White House in 2012 as part of his TV show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Reminding diner patrons that they shouldn’t confuse him with Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul (and father of 2016 candidate Rand Paul), the flamboyant pop star told the crowd, “Remember, this country was founded by a bunch of men wearing wigs!”

Red Arrow waitress Elaine Boule, who has greeted countless real presidential candidates over 20 years, was giddy. “RuPaul probably drew the biggest crowd of people we’ve ever had. He was dressed as a man and he was fabulous. I didn’t realize just how good looking of a man he is.”

The Red Arrow celebrates memories like these by jamming photographs in every square inch of open wall space. It’s a diner doubling as a museum. Perhaps the most over-the-top example of a restaurant embracing its role in the New Hampshire primary is the former Merrimack Restaurant on Elm Street in Manchester.

Now occupied by the Portland Pie pizzeria, the building’s side wall facing the Radisson Hotel used to be decorated with a mural of candidates who have visited the diner: Gary Hart, Steve Forbes, Bill Clinton, Joe Lieberman and Bob Dole. In 1984, Hart had his campaign headquarters in the space above the restaurant. Lieberman hosted a “Cup of Joe with Joe” event there when he was the vice presidential nominee in 2000.

The caricatures were painted by renowned Manchester artist Peter Noonan, who also drew cartoons of the 2008 presidential candidates for a special 25th anniversary coloring placemat.

On the opposite end of the décor spectrum, the local Common Man restaurant group — which includes the Airport Diner (Manchester), 104 Diner (New Hampton) and Tilt’n Diner (Tilton) — doesn’t devote any wall space to the New Hampshire primary, despite hosting many famous faces.

“I don’t know why we don’t do that. We’ve never gotten around to it, I guess,” says Common Man owner Alex Ray, who has shared pie and ice cream with Vice President Joe Biden and even attended his holiday party at the US Naval Observatory. “But I love the primary. I’m glad that [Sec. of State] Bill Gardner has protected it religiously. It’s so American to be able to see the candidates and listen to them. We’re so lucky.”

Although he’s apathetic about matting and framing primary memories, Ray is not shy about expressing his politics. He put a novelty ATM machine in the Tilt’n Diner lobby that dispenses money stamped in red ink with a not-so-subtle message: “NOT 2 B USED 4 BRIBING POLITICIANS.”

The gimmick is sponsored by the New Hampshire Rebellion, a campaign finance reform group founded by Harvard Prof. Larry Lessig, who briefly flirted with a run for president last fall. Ray has put self-inking desk stamps at the registers of his other restaurants for patrons to spread the word.

“The primary is a national megaphone,” Ray says. “Whenever we get behind a political issue, we do worry about possible pushback from customers. But on this one, we’ve had zero complaints, even from the candidates, who have a rain shower of money coming down on them.”

Seeking Selfies with Celebrities

Most voters who meet presidential candidates in diners aren’t interested in bribing them. A substantial number want autographs and selfies, a social media-ready moment bragging that they potentially just met the next President of the United States — or at least a reality TV star.

Early in the campaign, Donald Trump spoke at intimate meet-ups rather than large rallies. Here he is at a gathering at Tuscan Kitchen in Salem with owner Joe Faro. Courtesy of the Tuscan Kitchen.

Republican Donald Trump has focused his energy on mostly large-scale campaign events where he belittles his opponents for attracting smaller audiences. Visiting diners and coffee shops doesn’t fit into that calculus. However, back in April, the businessman met with a more intimate group of about 100 supporters at the Tuscan Kitchen in Salem. Lesson for autograph hunters: Catch the candidates months before they become official candidates.

“Believe it or not, when you are talking to him one on one, Trump is a pretty down-to-earth guy,” says Tuscan Kitchen owner Joe Faro, who has also hosted Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham. “He loves to hear entrepreneur stories and how businesses got started. We don’t publicly support any candidate, but it’s great to be a small part of history — especially if one of them wins.”

If you’re not lucky enough to get an invitation from the campaign, meeting Hillary Clinton in a small, intimate setting is tough to plan in advance. Because of Secret Service concerns, Clinton tends to make unannounced drop-ins, with restaurant owners and local police sometimes being contacted only hours beforehand.

When the weather was warmer, the former Secretary of State made unannounced ice cream stops at Dairy Twirl in Lebanon and Moo’s Place in Derry.

“I like the moment where she’ll walk up to an ice cream place and stand in line behind somebody ordering their ice cream cone,” says Mike Vlacich, Clinton’s state campaign director. “Then the person will look over their shoulder and do a double take: ‘Oh my goodness, that’s Hillary!’”

“The excitement reminds me a lot of my own childhood growing up in New Hampshire,” adds Vlacich, who is from Concord. “My parents weren’t especially political, but they saw what a wonderful opportunity we have here to meet the candidates.”

One diner owner particularly eager to greet Clinton is Nancy Petrillo, who runs Lindy’s in Keene. Proud of her eatery’s reputation as a “must-visit” stop on the campaign trail, the owner has decorated every table top with snapshots of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bob Dole and Paul Tsongas. Lindy’s slogan is “Where the Politicians Meet the Real People.”

Hillary Clinton at the Dairy Twirl in Lebanon last summer. Courtesy of Hillary Clinton for President.

During the 2008 New Hampshire primary, after Clinton visited Keene but skipped her diner, Petrillo sent the campaign a lighthearted ultimatum. According to The Keene Sentinel, the e-mail said: “If you don’t stop here, you don’t win.”

The diner’s website echoes the warning: “It is rumored that if you do not visit Lindy’s Diner as a presidential candidate, you will not win the New Hampshire primary.”

Whether there is a Curse of the Bambino-style force in play is subject to interpretation. Hillary Clinton did win the 2008 Democratic primary here, but lost the nomination to Barack Obama. Were Illinois and California voters possibly angered by a diner being snubbed in the Granite State?

Petrillo says she’s sent the Clinton campaign another (presumably more polite) invitation for 2016.

“So many people want to meet her,” she says, “and this is the perfect place to talk to voters. If you go to a town meeting, you can ask a question, but it’s not face-to-face. Some of our customers get to have real conversations with candidates in just a few minutes. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

The Candidate Who Grew Up in a Restaurant

At MoeJoe’s Family Restaurant in Manchester, US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) recently learned the risks of bringing a celebrity friend on the campaign trail — in this case, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain. As the two friends entered the restaurant, McCain was treated like the high school quarterback, while most customers wondered who Graham was.

“I thought he was the mayor of Manchester,” one voter confessed.

But Graham, who’s likely been humbled in McCain’s presence many times before, charmed strangers with his “uncelebrity” personality.

“Many people were impressed that Lindsey grew up working in a restaurant,” says MoeJoe’s hostess Wanda Fitts. “Many people got their first job washing dishes or bussing tables. People can identify with him.”

Graham’s parents ran a South Carolina bar called the Sanitary Café. According to Politico, he earned the childhood nickname of “Stinkball” because he would sneak sips of customers’ beer and take puffs on their cigarettes.

“I love meeting people at diners,” says Graham. “Usually, when people are eating they are in a good mood. And I like to eat. That’s one of the biggest assets of my campaign: I’m a good eater.”

Hatching a New Tradition

It’s not easy to autograph an egg

Fred Kocher — founder of the popular Politics & Eggs breakfast series — holds two wooden eggs from his collection of hundreds. Each is signed by a NH presidential primary candidate.

For 20 years, New Hampshire businesspeople have eaten eggs and then asked presidential candidates to sign them. The popular Politics & Eggs breakfast series, hosted by The New England Council and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College, is renowned for its souvenir wooden eggs that show the White House coming out of a cracked shell.

“The New Hampshire Primary hatches the candidates most likely to be president,” explains series founder Fred Kocher, who has hundreds of signed eggs in his personal collection.

“It’s tough to decipher some of the signatures,” he says. “Some are just initials, some are just first names. Some scribble like a doctor and it’s just plain illegible. For some of them, I have a hard time figuring out who signed what.”

The first Politics & Eggs in 1995 featured former NFL star and Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, before he became Bob Dole’s running mate. Nearly every candidate in the 2016 race has participated in the forums.

The 2.5-inch-tall eggs, always made from birch or maple, were originally manufactured by the now-defunct Allen-Rogers Company of Laconia — the same firm that made the official Easter Egg Roll eggs for the White House. After Allen-Rogers went out of business in 1998, the wooden eggs have been made by Kemp Enterprises of Farmington, Maine.

Chuck Norris Ate Pancakes (And Held My Baby) Here

By Darren Garnick

Actor Chuck Norris and his wife Gena meet future New Hampshire voter Dahlia Garnick at Parker’s Maple Barn in Mason. In 2008, Norris was campaigning for Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Photo by Ilya Mirman.

There are only two kinds of people in New Hampshire. The first kind is represented by a wisecracking police officer I met over a barricade at last summer’s Merrimack’s 4th of July parade. “Have you seen any presidential candidates come by here yet?” I asked. “Nope,” he shrugged. “And I hope they stay as far away from me as possible.”

I represent the second personality type, those who have permanent primary fever. Nearly every city and town in southern New Hampshire give me flashbacks of tracking presidential candidates in the snow. (Note: A Bob Dole footprint is very tough to distinguish from a Dennis Kucinich one.) At many local restaurants, I think of politics as much as I think about their food.

Because I’m a sucker for rustic log cabin pancake houses, I make a yearly pilgrimage to Parker’s Maple Barn in Mason. While I’m waiting for my yummy manhole-sized blueberry pancakes, I always pay homage to a small photo of an action-adventure movie star tucked in the corner. “This is the spot,” I silently remind myself, “where Chuck Norris held my baby.”

During the 2008 New Hampshire primary, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee treated hundreds of supporters (and one celebrity) to complimentary carbs at Parker’s. I was on an obsessive quest to photograph my then-5-month-old daughter Dahlia with all the presidential candidates. I got the Huckabee photo-op, but was far more entertained by watching Mrs. Chuck Norris tickle Dahlia’s feet.

That same election, I brought my young son, Ari, to meet Republican Mitt Romney at Foodee’s Pizza in Milford. “Ah, Ari,” the former Massachusetts governor said, “I know another Ari. Do you know Ari Fleischer?” My Ari had never heard of the similarly named White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush, but I was amused by the effort at small talk.

This is what is surreal about the New Hampshire primary. You can have real, unfiltered conversations with people who may become the next Leader of the Free World. They may even serve you ice cream.

Hudson’s Kyle Garnick at Mitt & Ann Romney’s 2012 Milford Ice Cream Social. Photo by Darren Garnick.

Mere footsteps away from Foodee’s, but four years later, my nephew Kyle Garnick and I went to Mitt Romney’s ice cream party on the Milford Oval. Mitt and his buddies (Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, US Rep. Charlie Bass) scooped flavors for anyone willing to listen to a not-so-sweet critique of the Obama administration.

Kyle and I scored autographed ice cream cones from Romney, who at the time was the presumed nominee and had Secret Service protection. For the day when the Smithsonian calls, I’m keeping that cone in a dust-proof, climate-controlled environment.    

My fascination with presidential candidates trampling through restaurants traces back as far as January 1992, when Vice President Dan Quayle was dispatched on a mission to the Pheasant Lane Mall food court in Nashua. I was working at a small Massachusetts weekly newspaper, The Acton Beacon, and was psyched to score an exclusive interview with the manager of Herbert’s Potato World, one of the many places where the handsome Quayle had spread his charm.

The mall visit came one day after President George Bush Sr. had vomited on the Japanese prime minister at a state dinner and then fainted. It was one of those embarrassing clips they giddily replayed endlessly on TV, underscoring the fact that Quayle (mocked by Democrats as a lightweight) was one heartbeat away from the Oval Office. 

This is believed to be the only surviving autographed Mitt Romney ice cream cone from the 2012 presidential election. Photo by Darren Garnick.

When the vice president ordered a small, decaffeinated coffee with no cream at Burger King, the crowd at the mall went nuts. He drinks coffee just like me! He goes to BK!

The media stampede, of course, asked the same snide questions they’d pull out for Sarah Palin years later. For the record, the Bush-Quayle ticket had won over the folks at Herbert’s Potato World, but it wouldn’t be enough in November when Bill Clinton ultimately won the White House.

Six New Hampshire primaries later, I can’t get enough of watching history play itself out in front of me. Despite the increasing risk of being crushed by fellow political junkies, it’s still more fun to experience that history inside a diner.  


Categories: Features, Politics