The Puritan Ethic
Arguably the state’s most iconic stand-alone restaurant, the noble Puritan celebrates 100 years of being everyone’s favorite home away from home.
As the third of the four generations of Pappases that have owned and operated the popular Manchester restaurant known as the Puritan, Arthur Pappas offers a general theory of the evolution of a multigenerational family enterprise.
“The first generation works like mad. The second generation makes a lot of money. And the third generation screws it up.” He smiles broadly at that last part. “I’m trying not to screw it up.”
If Pappas, the company’s president and treasurer, appears untroubled over that possibility, the reason becomes obvious to anyone who follows him around as he moves briskly through the three kitchens, a takeout center (the “Front Room”), a function room, the 240-seat dining room and, across a segment of the large parking lot, to the conference center, all of which make up the Puritan enterprise. Now 66, he has been working full-time in the family business since shortly after his graduation from UNH in 1972. If there have been “screwups” along the way, it would be hard to find evidence of them. A large restaurant with a steady flow of customers, day and night, seven days a week, 100 years after its founding must be doing something — make that a lot of things — right.
“Forty-five ‘bus kids,’ 45 cooks, probably 85 waitresses, 20 dishwashers, 16 bartenders,” says Pappas ticking off the numbers in various categories of the Puritan workforce of about 225. That makes for a lot of paychecks. And a lot of premiums. Medical coverage for employees cost the business $16,000 a month, Pappas says.
“We’re more than competitive,” he says, when asked about competition from other local and area restaurants in attracting and retaining help. Even in a strong economic climate and a near-record low in unemployment, the Puritan seems to have little problem filling the rare vacancies that occur on the restaurant’s large and loyal staff. Several of the employees who started as part-time help as teenagers are still there decades later.
“We have waitresses who have been here so long, they’re now waiting on the children and grandchildren of people they waited on years and years ago,” Pappas says. That’s certainly true of bartender Julie Rosa, who began working at the Puritan around the time Ronald Reagan was still settling in at the White House.
“Thirty-eight years,” she says cheerfully, while pouring drinks and serving food to a busy lunch-hour crowd. “I started when I was 16. It’s the only job I’ve ever had.” Having started when Arthur’s father Charlie, and the late Canotas brothers, Plato and Milton, were running the business, Rosa continues to find the work and the atmosphere to her liking.
“They come in here and feel at home,” she says of the customers. “They come in dressed up for an occasion or dressed casual, and don’t feel out of place.”
“Nobody leaves,” says Daria Fortioni, a Puritan employee for 25 years. “It’s a good place to work. They’re good people.”
The current longevity leader, Patrick Cronin, came on board in 1967. Fifty-two years later, he’s still at work in the restaurant kitchen, wearing a broad smile as he talks about his long years with a restaurant that has become something of a second home for him.
“It’s just like family to me,” he says, a sentiment expressed by several long-time members of the staff. “You can talk to them about things,” he says, recalling financial troubles he ran into, like having to replace a broken water tank at home, and how the people he works for helped him out.
“When I’d try to repay them, they said, ‘No, don’t worry about it.’ I don’t like to do that, but … ” Pappas responds with a shrug to accounts of management’s benevolence toward the Puritan’s workers.
“You help family out, you help employees out,” he says. “We treat our help like family. We treat our customers like family.”
It’s hardly surprising that “family” should be a recurring theme at the Puritan, where Arthur’s son, Congressman Chris Pappas, and son-in-law Eric Zink, vice presidents and co-owners of the business, are the fourth generation of the family-owned enterprise started by a pair of plucky Greek immigrants who arrived in Manchester early in the last century. As chronicled in a 1949 article in the Union Leader, Arthur Pappas, grandfather of the current owner, and Louis Canotas, father of Plato and Milton, had clerked together at a remnant store in Elassona, Greece, before coming to Manchester within a few months of each other in 1906. Pappas went to work in one of the Amoskeag mills, while Canotas found work at a McElwain shoe factory. Pappas later opened a fruit and candy store in Natick, Massachusetts, while Canotas remained in Manchester, running a shoeshine parlor on Elm Street.
The pair went into business together when the opportunity came to buy a bakery on Hanover Street. They formed a partnership with Charles Gouliamas, to form the Puritan Confectionery Company, making and selling candy and ice cream instead of bakery goods. Gouliamas sold his interest and went back to Greece soon after, returning decades later to manage a Puritan ice cream stand on the Daniel Webster Highway. The confectionery opened at 57 Hanover St. on April 5, 1917. The ice cream and candy were good, but the timing was not propitious. The United States had just entered World War I and food items, including sugar, were being rationed.
‘They had to buy sugar on the black market,” Pappas says. “How do you make candy without sugar?” The business not only survived, it prospered. Two years later, they purchased a 20-year lease and opened a new restaurant in a store occupied by the former Lee’s Specialty Shop at 897 Elm St. Some $25,000 to $35,000 was spent on remodeling the store.
“What’s amazing to me,” Pappas says, “is that they came here in 1906 and they had nothing. And by 1919 they opened a really nice restaurant. That’s it right there,” he says, pointing to a large framed photo on the wall. “They paid $10,000 for the lease — not the building, the lease. They had to deal with a bank.” Back then, he says, “business was done on a handshake. At my bank today,” he laughs, “they ask every time for my social security number and driver’s license. And I’ve been doing business with them for 20 years.”
A fire in the building required a months-long closing and more than $100,000 worth of renovations before a grand reopening of the two-story restaurant and tea room in December of 1949, with Mayor Josaphat Benoit performing the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The “tea room” soon became a function room to complement the business at the ground floor restaurant. Meanwhile, the Puritan continued to churn out the ice cream and make candy at the Hanover Street site.
“I was a kid in a candy store,” Pappas smiles as he recalls the days when he would accompany his grandfather on the way to church and watch the family patriarch stop at the store and place an order for candy for later consumption at home.
Between the ice cream and candy store on Hanover Street and the restaurant on Elm, the Puritan flourished in the heavy volume of foot traffic in the heyday of Manchester’s downtown. The restaurant “was kind of a favorite spot, across the street from City Hall,” recalls former Mayor Sylvio Dupuis. “For people working or doing business in Manchester, it was at the top of the list of places for having lunch.” Business was also lively in the evenings, Pappas remembers.
“Monday and Thursday nights were the busiest,” says Pappas. “That’s when all the stores stayed open at night.” Thursday was payday at Manchester’s mills and factories. As for Monday nights, well, “I don’t know. I guess they just wanted to have another shopping night,” says Pappas. “People did their shopping downtown, their banking, you went to the movies downtown, everything was downtown.” That was before retailers began migrating out to plazas on South Willow Street or locations in nearby suburbs, with room to expand and ample space for parking. The Puritan took its business out to its current location on the Daniel Webster Highway in 1969.
“It turned out to be a pretty good move,” Pappas says. “Business on Elm Street just wasn’t as good as they needed it to be. Down on Elm Street, they would have struggled to make ends meet.” When the city turned down a plan by Jordan Marsh to open a department store downtown, the retail chain opened a store just over the line in Bedford.
“I think if Jordan Marsh had come in, retail would have remained downtown longer,” says Pappas, who believes the Puritan made its move at “just the right time.”
The ice cream and takeout stand on the DW Highway became known as the Front Room after the owners had an addition built behind it for the opening of the new Puritan restaurant in 1974, dubbed, for lack of a better name, the Back Room.
The Front Room still handles a steady volume of takeout orders, and features a walkup window where long lines of ice cream lovers gather to choose from among 37 flavors of ice cream, four flavors of sherbet and three flavors of sorbet, all made on-site. In 2010, USA Today published a survey of the best ice cream stops in each state. The Puritan was ranked No. 1 in New Hampshire.
One disruption in the company’s business came in 1989 when the ice cream window was closed while renovations to the Front Room were going on. “We tried serving the ice cream through the bar and that was a nightmare,” Pappas recalls. The window was reopened a year later. Today the Puritan makes and sells about 20,000 gallons of ice cream each year.
Additions to the Back Room over the years have brought the seating capacity to 240 in the dining room, with seats for another 20 at the bar. The numbers make it possible to accommodate large parties.
“Twenty-five people can come in and get seated,” Pappas says. “Very few days go by when we don’t have large parties come in for birthday or anniversary celebrations.”
Fortunately, for the Puritan, many of the partiers come back time and again
“We all need repeat customers,” Pappas says. “When you meet a customer for the fist time, you treat them like your favorite relative.”
A favorite relative shouldn’t be hard to find for Pappas and his staff at the Puritan. Arthur’s wife, Dawn, is the company’s bookkeeper. His sister, Pam Goode, who does the baking, has been with the business for 46 years, having joined the crew after her 1973 graduation from Wheelock College in Boston. His son, Chris, continued to put in 50 to 60 hours a week at the restaurant while serving on the state Executive Council, before becoming New Hampshire’s new congressman in January of this year.
“He managed to balance his work here with his political stuff,” his father says. That obviously has changed now that the congressman’s weekends back home are taken up with political events and meetings with constituents. “We tried putting him on a Sunday shift, but that didn’t work out,” says Pappas, who recalls that his wife told Chris long ago, “I don’t care what you do when you graduate, just don’t get involved with your dad.”
“I think I started him [telling him that] when he was 5,” says Dawn, noting that the restaurant business has long and demanding hours. “Even when you’re home, you get phone calls and it’s always in your head,” she says. “It’s just a really tough business. I was hoping for more of a normal life for him, with a more normal schedule.”
“Like the kind he has in Washington?” jokes son-in-law Eric Zink.
A number of staff members have family connections of their own at the restaurant. Julie Rosa’s husband Kevin and brother Gene are both cooks there. Moises Montes, a native of El Salvador, started work at the Puritan in 1987, where he learned to “cook, clean, everything.” Now 56, he remains part of the kitchen crew where he takes pride in the recipe he came up with for spicy chicken tenders. In his first year, he recalls, Plato Canotas sent him to school at Central High and at UNH-Manchester to learn English at the company’s expense. His wife, Maria, works at kitchen prep when she is not waitressing or busing tables in the dining room. With a friendly smile and easy laughter, she has made a lot of friends in 23 years at the restaurant.
“It’s a big place and you meet a lot of nice people,” she says. “Everywhere I go people know my name. It’s like I live here and they are part of my family.”
Not everyone who goes to work at the Puritan stays for a lifetime, but Pappas notes most of the turnover that does occur is among those he calls “the bus kids,” the young, part-time workers who scoop ice cream and serve the takeout orders in the Front Room or clear tables in the restaurant. “Those who are here after five years tend to stay a while,” he says.
Jim Sullivan, who started doing “a little bit of everything” at the restaurant in 1982, still works there, despite the muscular dystrophy that has kept him in a wheelchair for the past two years. He now coordinates the activities of the “bus kids” in the Front Room, and values the flexible hours that allow him to coordinate his own work at the restaurant with his political duties in Hooksett, where he is both chairman of the town council and a member of the school board.
Some of the long-time employees who have left are seen again at the other side of the table or bar. Sheila MacDonald, who worked at the Puritan from 1977 to 1992, returns as a customer every week or two. The tenth of 13 children, she was one of four in the MacDonald family who worked at the restaurant, where their earnings helped pay their way through college. They learned early in life to “be on time and do a good job,” says MacDonald, now an administrative assistant at Hillside Middle School. There was an incentive to maintain the work ethic away from the restaurant as well.
“I had to maintain a B average to be able to work here,” says MacDonald, recalling that was a mandate she received from Plato Canotas. Coming back as a customer, she still feels at home.
“You always run into somebody you know,” she says. “The food is good, the people are good … I rave about the place. I always have.”
Carol Plaza of Hudson first stopped at the Puritan 45 years ago and returns with her husband Nate once every week or two. Among other things, she is sure the Puritan serves the best mudslides, a smooth but potent blend of vodka, Kahlua and Baileys Irish Cream. “When I was young, I had my first mudslide here. Then I had a second one,” she says, recalling that later “I slept very well. I’ve been having mudslides here for 45 years, but I’ve never [again] had a second one.”
Denis Parker recalls going to the Puritan in his high school days, gathering there with teammates after football and basketball games, reliving the night’s game over milkshakes and burgers. Parker, a retired former executive director of the State Employees Association, returns to the restaurant five or six times a year. “People come back to renew acquaintances,” he says, along with younger customers making friends of their own.
“I don’t think any other restaurant has so much intergenerational attraction,” he says. “They haven’t lost their touch. The quality is consistent, the food is always delicious.” And the portions are generous. “You never leave here hungry,” Parker says.
One of the delicacies that keep bringing customers back is the result of what might be called a recycling project. “We were the first to sell boneless, skinless chicken breast,” says Pappas. The question arose about what to do with the left over strips of white meat peeled from either side of the breastbone. The answer was to fry them and serve them as chicken tenders. Puritan’s chicken tenders have been a perennial winner in New Hampshire Magazine’s Best of New Hampshire Readers’ Poll. “It was something that started out as a couple hundred pounds a week,” says Pappas. “Now it’s a couple thousand pounds on a busy day.“
“Oh, God, yeah!” answers New Hampshire Lodging and Restaurant Association president Mike Somers when asked if he ever dines at the Puritan. “Are you kidding me? They make the best chicken fingers in the world. The mudslides are good too. Just make sure you only have one or two. It’s a very serious drink.” The tenure of the staff “speaks to the quality of the operation,” Somers says. “It’s a family ownership that treats staff like part of the family.” Somers can’t think of any other family-owned restaurant in the state that has lasted as long as the Puritan.
“There are certainly examples of some that have been handed down through multigenerations — definitely in the 50-year range. But 100 years is a pretty solid run.”
So how much longer will the run continue for the Queen City restaurant oft-described as a city “icon”? Will one or more of Arthur’s four young grandchildren be the next generation of Puritan owners?
“My hope is that they’ll do what they want to do,” he says. “If they want to come with me, that’s great.” Pappas acknowledges that running the business he loves can take its toll on management and workers alike. “It’s like being a landlord with 25 houses,” he says. “There’s always something to fix.” And even that loyal staff of veteran employees can’t be there forever. “The job gets a little old,” he says, “especially when you’re on a fryolator all day long. That’s hard work.” So far neither Pappas, an energetic 66, nor his staff appears any worse for the wear.
“The first hundred years were easy,” Pappas jokes. “The next hundred years will be hard for me.”