Q&A with: Common Man founder Alex Ray

Alex Ray’s 13 New Hampshire restaurants and diners include five Common Man restaurants, following the success of the first one he started in 1971 in Ashland. A new Common Man in Claremont is now under construction. At 61, the New Jersey native considers himself “old enough to know better and young enough to try.” Ray is nearly as well known for his philanthropy as for his success in the restaurant business and he believes the two go together. He sat down for the following interview at his Common Man restaurant in Concord.

Q. How did you get started in the restaurant business?

A. I went to work as a dishwasher. I was a very poor student. I went through high school on the five-year plan. The principal said to me, “What are you going to do?” I said I wanted to be an engineer or an architect. He got off the floor from laughing and said, “What are you really going to do?” I said, “Go to cooking school ‘cause that’s all I really know.” So I did.

Q. Had you done some cooking while you were working as a dishwasher?

A. Oh, yeah. My junior/senior summer was fun because I applied for and got a job at he Poland Springs Hotel in Grey, Maine, as a cook. That was a huge, beautiful hotel. It was hard work and low pay, but I didn’t know that at the time. I lived in the attic, and it was just awful. But I learned it was OK — life is like that. And the next year, my senior year, I decided I would go to cooking school.

Q. Where did you go to school?

A. I went for two years to the Culinary Institute of America. Then I went to work for a company called Canteen Corporation and eventually they took over the Sanders Associates account. I ran the cafeteria in Manchester and did a good job and then they gave me the cafeteria on Canal Street (in Nashua) and then on Spit Brook Road. Then the supervisor said to me, “You’re not going to be here two years from now. You’re not corporate material.” I didn’t know what those words meant, but he was right. I don’t take direction well.

Q. So how did that lead to the Common Man?

A. I bought a hotel in Holderness and ran a little bed and breakfast. That was in ’69. The next winter, 1970, I had no place to put my children, because I was staying in a motel room. That’s when I bought a brick house in Ashland. The following year, in November 1971, we opened it as The Common Man.

Q. What gave you the inspiration for the name?

A. Two or three people sitting on a step, trying to think what our market was. We thought of a name that would play to the local people, from the banker to the carpenter and I wanted it to be as basic as it could be, no frills.

Q. A lot of restaurateurs are trying to do the opposite, trying to make their restaurants more upscale.

A. I do everything I can not to be upscale. It’s hard. I don’t want a $21 salmon. I want a $12 or $11 salmon. I can’t do it, but I keep trying.

The business sense says don’t raise your price unless you have a completely controlled market, because you’ll lose your critical mass, you’ll go out of business. You have to build a broader base, and how do you do that? I think you give them a better value.

In our business, value is based on product and service. So if you raise your price without raising your product or service, you become less valuable to the consumer.

That’s what happened to Howard Johnson. That’s what happened to Boston Chicken. So the daily fight is, don’t raise your prices, cut your waste and increase your efficiency.

Q. You said that your 13 restaurants are 14 more than you need. What do you mean?

A. I don’t know if we’re properly managing them. To keep going and retaining this culture of people and the value that I talked about you need a positive reinforcement, a management/leadership training program. We don’t have it. We’re weak. So we try to win by — I don’t know — being smart, working harder, being good to our employees. Doing this charitable work, which becomes our marketing programs. However, part of marketing is making sure your employees like the company they’re working for.

Q. You seem to have a preference for old buildings or making new buildings look old.

A. I don’t like new buildings. You can try to make a place feel old. We did everything we could here in Concord to make this feel comfortable and have some old-world feeling and that’s very hard to do. I want to see crooked walls and old floors, so we tried. I’m not apologizing for it, but it’s a brand new building.

Q. Is that preference for older buildings out of a sense of nostalgia, a feeling that service was better in the old days?

A. Oh, it’s just a genuineness I’m looking for and I don’t think you get that from an interior decorator.

I don’t think people go to a restaurant for the décor. They may go once. But if they go back, it’s never because of décor, unless it’s the Rainforest Café or something like that. You go back because you got value, a positive feeling and when you walk out the door you say, “I had a good time.” You don’t walk out the door saying, “I’m going to come back and look at the walls again.” We should spend more money on training and service than we should on even food.

Q. So the service is even more important than the food?

A. Exactly. Chefs don’t like to hear that. You can have a place that is way above in service and average food and succeed. But you can’t have a place with way above food and average service. You’ll be out of business.

Q. I’ve often wondered if a man owns a restaurant or the restaurant owns the man — the long hours, the unpredictability of it. Do you ever feel that way?

A. I would say absolutely — the restaurants own me. And I’m working hard at age 61 to change that formula. I still want to shepherd it, but I don’t want to be dominated by it. And I’m getting tired, to tell the truth.

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