The first Common Man Restaurant opened on Main Street in Ashland in 1971. The bank didn’t think too highly of financing the young Alex Ray in this venture, but after a few doses of the Ray enthusiasm and the dedication of one loan officer in particular, it all came together.
The Common Man Ashland could serve all of 35 people in its cozy front dining room. There wasn’t a waiting area or lounge, so patrons would line up outside - even in the winter - and wait for an open table. Alex says he used to run out of the kitchen and peek around the building to see how long the line was. People waiting would look in the door and see customers ordering more coffee. The whisper would then run down the waiting line, “Oh nuts, they’re having more coffee.”
Alex and Jack McCormack were the cooks, and Common Man family Vice President Diane Downing worked in Ashland as a server and bartender. Diane eventually managed Ashland and future locations, and moved into her important role on the leadership team.
In 1974, the carriage house behind the restaurant was converted into more dining space. Now patrons had a warm place to wait for a table! In 1977, Alex and his young family moved out of the rooms above the main restaurant to a farm in Holderness, and Alex converted the space into The Step Above Lounge. The comfortable, family-room like lounge is a local landmark.
In October of 1985, the old Pollard Family home in Lincoln, NH was purchased and an old barn was moved to the site, renovated, and attached for additional dining space. Bing Rogers of Campton, NH constructed an amazing rock fireplace, and 47 days from the date of purchase, Diane and Alex opened the second Common Man Restaurant.
In 1987, the old Howard Johnson’s Restaurant in Concord, NH was purchased and renovated, keeping the old-style counter service and turning the rest of the place into a real old-fashioned 50s style diner. The Capital City Diner became a popular local hangout and a must-stop on every politician’s tour of the state.
In December of 1991, after much negotiating, Alex convinced the Pike Family to sell the parking lot adjacent to their company headquarters just off exit 20 off I-93 in Tilton. He knew this would be the perfect spot to park the 1952 steel diner that he’d bought several years before. Alex, Diane and a dedicated staff opened Tilt’n Diner the following spring.
In 1993, Alex and Diane partnered with friends to open the Italian Farmhouse in Plymouth. The Farmhouse has become a favorite for locals and tourists alike, with its fresh baked bread, brick oven pizza and warm, friendly atmosphere. A large glass greenhouse was rescued and resurrected behind the restaurant. The brick-floored, carefully-manicured greenhouse overflows with flowers and is a favorite spot for weddings and other celebrations.
In 1994, property in Holderness, NH was purchased and became Squam Seafood Company, a seasonal restaurant serving fresh seafood in a fun atmosphere. Just one of the many unique features of the restaurant was a real lobster boat beached out front. Diners could actually order their meal and eat on board! Although the restaurant was extremely popular, the demands of a seasonal restaurant were too much, and that location closed after three years.
Also in 1994, Alex and Diane worked with Meredith entrepreneur Rusty McLear of Mill Falls at the Lake to create the Inn at Bay Point and a new upscale-dining concept called Boathouse Grille Restaurant. The restaurant was in a completely renovated bank building located right on the water in downtown Meredith. In the fall of 2003, the Boathouse Grille was renovated into Lago, an authentic Italian Trattoria.
Twenty-five years after opening the original Common Man Restaurant, the Common Man Family opened yet another Common Man. The new restaurant was located in a renovated barn in Windham, NH that Alex had his eye on for quite some time. The Common Man Windham is busy year-round, serving great American fare to southern New Hampshire and guests from over the border in Massachusetts.
In 1996, Diane spearheaded the effort to open The Common Man Company Store in Ashland, NH, buying the converted Ashland Post Office building and selecting New Hampshire and New England-made merchandise and antiques to sell. The store offers a wide variety of Common Man goodies and gift baskets, and also stocks creative toys, candles, linens, soaps, lotions and our own Spa at the Common Man Inn’s product line. Most popular is the Common Man’s home made fudge and penny candy counter. In 2010, the old-time store merged with modern-day technology to offer its most popular Common Man items for sale online through thecman.com.
In 1998, the Common Man family again teamed up with the Inns at Mill Falls in the creation of Camp restaurant, located within The Chase House at Mill Falls in downtown Meredith. Camp is a re-creation of fun days spent at summer camp on the lake, and serves up great American fare with a camp flair.
In 1999, another try was made for a seasonal place, buying the old Frankensundae on the Bay in Meredith and turning it into a take-out or eat-in summer dining spot called Town Docks. Town Docks features breathtaking views of Meredith Bay on Lake Winnipesaukee with deck seating, a beach bar and Franky’s ice cream shop, serving Common Man-made ice cream. In 2001, Town Docks was transitioned from a quick-serve deli to a more traditional New England Lobster Pound.
In 2000, the decision was made to replace the Capital City Diner in Concord with a Common Man restaurant. The old structure was torn down and a new, charming New England home and barn was built in its place. The Common Man Concord opened its doors in the fall of 2000. The restaurant features unique gathering rooms that are usually booked
solid, and a new bar ‘n grill offering lighter fare and spirits.
A test of the resolve and drive of the Common Man family came in the summer of 2001, when an arsonist burned down the Common Man Lincoln. The shock and loss was felt throughout the company. Lincoln STARS were kept on and loaned to other C-MAN family restaurants. The new restaurant – re-built in just 60 days – is a match of the historic home and barn that housed the original, with a few subtle improvements, including meeting and event space on the second level.
In 2001/2002, the Common Man family undertook a huge challenge. They took a 60,000 square foot defunct wood mill in the town of Plymouth, and, retaining 90 percent of the original building, ingeniously transformed it into the 38-room Common Man Inn & Spa, Foster’s Boiler Room restaurant and event facility. The Common Man Inn & Spa has won ‘Grow Smart’ and Main Street awards, and provides what many consider to be a new center for the town of Plymouth.
Next up for Alex, Diane and their team was opening Lakehouse Grille in Church Landing at Mill Falls in Meredith in 2004. Lakehouse serves creative American cuisine in an Adirondack-style dining room that features hand-hewn exposed beams, fieldstone fireplaces, panoramic lake views, and a large event space with seating for 300 guests.
In 2005, the Common Man family turned to a big, new project - a Common Man Restaurant in Merrimack, NH. Hannah Jack’s Tavern was purchased, and to the great excitement of the Merrimack community, the team set to work renovating the former home of Matthew Thornton, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The restaurant opened in the historic structure, which dates back to 1794, in July of 2005.
Just as the Merrimack project was finishing up, ground broke on the Airport Diner in Manchester, in the Holiday Inn on Brown Avenue. The historic photographs of Manchester Airport, vintage planes and paintings that make up the diner’s aeronautical theme were selected in partnership with the NH Aviation Historical Society. Since opening in December of 2005, the 50s style diner has quickly become a favorite with locals and travelers alike.
In 2008, the Common Man Express opened, a deli located at the Ashland Mobil Station off of Exit 24 of I-93, allowing travelers and area business people a chance to order great Common Man food while on the go.
Also in 2008, in conjunction with the massive I-93 widening project in southern New Hampshire, major renovations were made to the Common Man in Windham to increase seating, parking and offer a Bar ‘n Grill area upstairs, as well as private dining areas.
In June 2009, we continued to grow, with the renovation of defunct mills in Claremont on the banks of the Sugar River into the second Common Man Inn in New Hampshire, and a Common Man restaurant. This was another sizeable undertaking by the Common Man family and Rusty McLear, who converted brick mills that were downtrodden and stood unused for decades into a beautiful 35-room inn and restaurant. Area leaders see the project as an important piece of the economic revival of the entire region.
Not waiting long for the next project, The Common Man Portsmouth opened in August 2009, becoming the first seacoast home for the Common Man family. And in October 2009, the Common Man family opened The 104 Diner in New Hampton on the former site of Bobby’s Girl Diner.
Rounding out 2009 and expanding into a new area, a defunct movie theater on Main Street in Plymouth, NH was purchased and re-opened as The Flying Monkey Movie House and Performing Arts Center. After undergoing an extensive renovation in April 2010, the historic 1920’s Vaudeville theater re-opened in July 2010 and now brings to northern New Hampshire national recording artists and comedy acts; independent and classic films; and regional dance and theatrical productions.
While the Common Man family has grown in physical locations over the years, so too has it’s commitment to local communities by inspiring all of its STARS to live the mantra of “Doing Well by Doing Good.” Each location is charged with holding community fundraisers, and employees are given paid time off to volunteer with non-profit organizations that are important to them. Over the four decades of being a hospitality leader in New Hampshire, the Common Man family has donated hundreds of hours of sweat equity and thousands of dollars in sponsorships, food and in-kind donations to local, national and international organizations working to make a difference.
The Common Man’s community efforts have been recognized on both a local and national level, receiving for 16 years in a row the New Hampshire Restaurant Neighbor Award, and in 2010, a national Cornerstone Humanitarian Award from the National Restaurant Association. Other awards for the Common Man family over the years have included Business of the Decade from Business New Hampshire Magazine, Business of the Year from the New Hampshire Department of Resources and Economic Development, Best Company to Work for in the Food Service Industry by The Griffin Report and multiple "Best of" Awards as voted by readers of New Hampshire Magazine, Hippo Press, The New Hampshire Union Leader and The Concord Monitor.
November 2011 marked 40 years of The Common Man family serving great American fare in the Granite State. The “Family’s” drive and creativity had not diminished over the years, and in October 2013, Alex broke ground in Hooksett to undertake a unique public-private partnership with the State of New Hampshire, to renovate the dated Welcome Centers on each side of Interstate 93.
After just 15 months of construction, the ribbon was cut on the northbound facility in March 2015, with southbound following shortly after. The new Welcome Centers offer new 20,000 square foot NH Liquor & Wine Outlets, 3,000 square foot interactive visitor centers, NH General Stores, Common Man Roadside eateries in 10,000 square foot food courts, 16 Irving fuel stations, Tesla electric car charging stations, upgraded restrooms and more than 300 parking spaces each. The northbound center was named in honor of the late Executive Councilor Raymond S. Burton, and also features a Merrimack County Savings Bank branch and a League of New Hampshire Craftsmen retail store. This is the only facility of its kind to feature an all-local food court without the presence of national brands.
The Hooksett project was a large and unique undertaking, but you never know when Alex is going to find a new project and proclaim, "Here we grow again!"