By Jeff Woodburn
In the spring, 2009, amidst the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Alex Ray, the venerable but quixotic restaurateur and founder of the Common Man Family of Restaurants, was midway through a $17 million renovation of a decrepit old mill building in the downtrodden city of Claremont.
It was a property where the last three developers had failed, and Ray was a long way from home and his model of building restaurants near Interstate 93. This project was by far his largest and most complicated — so much so that he even brought on a business partner.
Despite it all, Ray was nothing close to discouraged. He went looking for a good deal on a used vat fryer at a Portsmouth restaurant auction, but instead ended up coming home with yet another restaurant – the former Victory Restaurant on State Street.
It was not an uncommon occurrence for the founder of the Common Man Restaurant chain. It was, after all, classic Alex Ray. In fact, since then, he’s also acquired at auction the landmark Bobby’s Girl Diner in New Hampton.
In 1987, after nearly two decades of running a small restaurant in Ashland, Ray took his show on the road and began turning rundown real estate and poisoned properties into unique, eclectic places that house his restaurants. He now sits atop an empire of 17 restaurants, two hotels and numerous other properties.
Ray is an unlikely real estate guru. He is famous for his shortcomings – he’s impulsive, erratic, disorganized and, his lawyer and builder agree, too nice and honest in a business that counts those qualities as weaknesses.
Sometimes he leaves admirers wondering if his model isn’t a recipe for disaster, but in the end, Ray’s passion and true brilliance for building shines through.
You have to understand, says longtime friend and attorney Jack McCormack, who cooked with Ray in the early 1970s, “He has no history of failure and has a youthful enthusiasm, an eye for detail and an innate market sense.”
For Ray, real estate development is more of an art than a science. He doesn’t follow systems, models and, at times, seems to defy the old carpenter’s rule to “measure twice, cut once.”
Jeff Downing, president of Conneston Construction Inc. of Gilford, who has a long association with Ray, says he’s “a gut builder” who seems to have an innate sense of style, location and the perseverance to navigate through the obstacles that can engulf a complicated project.
While most of Downing’s commercial clients want every detail worked out on paper in advance of building, Ray seems to relish the challenge and knows that the process will ensure that the result will be a one-of-a-kind property in a sea of commercial “vanilla boxes.”
Michael Coyle of Sugar Hill, a real estate and business broker, has seen that vision unfold within minutes in an abandoned old factory in Plymouth. The property was, as Coyle remembers, “frozen in time” with an enormous “steam boiler that looked like something that came out of the Titanic.”
After a quick tour, Coyle recalls Ray saying, “I like it and I think I can do it,” and then he picked up a used paper bag off the floor and ripped it in half and began to sketch some renderings. The other half was used to write up a sales agreement.
Within nine months, the hotel and restaurant were open. “What he built was on that bag,” says Coyle.
The unsightly boiler, which many people would have seen as a detriment, became a central part of the building. Ray knows, Coyle says, “If something isn’t broke, he doesn’t fix it.”
At 64 years old, Ray says that he is motivated by “pride and pleasure,” not money, but he also seems to be driven by solving the riddle that can befuddle a building, and he does it with uncanny innovation and daring solutions that Downing says sometimes “scare me.”
He also has an inner confidence that comes after considerable thought. “He’s constantly thinking about this stuff,” Downing says, “he does not have a hobby. He lives for working.”
In 1987, Ray bought a 1950s-style Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Concord that was entangled near two highways, an intersection and a river. It was his third venture — the Capital City Diner — and his first foray into a big market. In time, the state invaded more and more of his land, ultimately offering to buy him out or proceed with eminent domain.
But Ray wanted to stay. He had faith in the location.
Leon Kenison, then the commissioner of the Department of Transportation, says that in cases like these all but 2 or 3 percent get settled and very few retain ownership.
Kenison credits Ray with rising to the occasion. “He’s a negotiator,” says Kenison, “and was willing to make some trade-offs. He knew his limits and could recognize ours.”
McCormack says it is Ray’s personality and reputation that have made cooperation possible. While many developers would prepare for a big fight, Ray took a different approach, he says. “He’s amazingly practical and sees the big picture,” McCormack adds. He’s also down-to-earth and able to make quick decisions.
In the end, Ray’s persistence paid off. He was able to stay and eventually construct a new building – a Common Man restaurant — with salvaged old house parts that he proudly notes sit “on the existing cellar” on the tiny sliver of land that remained. But this left him with a parking problem, so he convinced the state to lease him some nearby contaminated land. The location remains the Common Man’s most successful restaurant.
Shortly thereafter, Ray fell for an unlikely piece of swamp land in an industrial neighborhood in Tilton just off Interstate 93.
In 1992, after much negotiating, he convinced paving mogul Milo Pike to sell him his company parking lot. He got a three-acre lot for $250,000. His builder and lawyer had their doubts — Downing because the property was “too wet” and unstable to build on, and McCormack because of the barren, backwater location and the uncertainty of the casual diner market.
Ray’s prophetic view of what the location would become is now legendary. Today the area is packed with retail outlets and box stores, but before that he had to figure out how to build a restaurant in a swamp.
There were basically two options – neither very good – to build on the spot: use expensive steel pilings that reach into the earth in search of good footing or build a floating slab that Ray describes as being “like a raft in a lake.” He chose the latter.
Unconvinced contractors began to refer to the place – to be known as the “Tilt’n Diner” – as the “tilting diner.” But Ray’s idea worked, and even though the building with an attached 1951 steel diner has since moved somewhat, it has settled uniformly.
Later, as the area began to boom, he subdivided the property (at a handsome return). His neighbors chose the pilings approach, and their parking lots are sinking around their buildings.
During the construction of the floating slab, the contractors installed a dug well to draw the water from the soils so the foundation could be set. When completed, they began to dismantle the well, but Ray stopped them, and the well was left in place.
Back then, he said, “he didn’t know why” but now, some 17 years later, he’s making plans to use the well water by jury-rigging a geothermal operation to help reduce the cost of cooling in the summer and heating in the winter.
Succeeding in the restaurant business may have been good training for Ray, who has a rabid compulsion for efficiency – or, as he says, he “hates waste.” His friends call him cheap, and he admits he’ll work for hours fixing a $9 clock, but he also spends heavily on energy saving investments because it makes him feel good.
He also is well known for his philanthropy, including turning one of the nation’s most threatened landmarks – the ancestral home of Daniel Webster — into a substance abuse facility, which is funded by his company.
Ray regularly gathers new restaurant employees together and gives them a pep talk about the importance of efficiency. He asks new hires to guess his profit margin. They respond with 75 percent, 50 and so on. He then tells them: 5 percent (this year it’s 4.79 percent, to be exact). So, he continues, if you break a $1 glass, you have to sell $20 worth of product just to get back to even.
For Ray, it is not just about money; he wears old clothes, drives used cars and calls himself “a reverse snob.” He likes physical work and can be found long after the construction crew is gone, laying brick for a walkway.
Then there’s his collection of salvaged architectural parts. Each of his restaurants has a different theme, but the commonality is old doors, wood floors, exposed structural elements and an array of old things that give the eateries an organic, eclectic, homey feel.
During the renovation of the Claremont mill, Ray installed hardwood floors that came from the old JFK Coliseum in Manchester. It was a deal in which everyone made out – the arena, salvage company and him.
“He uses a lot of junk and sometimes it’s cost-efficient,” says Downing. “Sometimes it’s not.”
He recalls once when Ray bought a bunch of used showers and toilets that needed to be rebuilt and eventually torn out.
McCormack says each of these projects takes on a life of its own, and because he generally develops properties in more rural, offbeat locations the entire community gets involved.
The walls are full of old photos and artifacts that people give to him. “People see him (and his restaurants),” McCormack says, “as a repository of their history.”
Ray is, as he notes, absolutely accessible to everyone, with his home number published in the phone book. Anyone who knows him says the last place he’ll be found is at the corporate office or any of his restaurants.
With the Claremont project completed and Portsmouth well under way, Ray is at home in his old farmhouse on a back road in Holderness. He’s relaxed and reflective, but old habits are hard to break. He’ll soon be on the prowl for another project, but today, for a moment, he’s looking back to his high school days in a small North Country town.
He recalls that a guidance counselor laughed when he told him that he wanted to “do something with architecture.” Instead he became, like many kids in the tourist town of North Conway, a cook.
But nearly a half-century later, he’s doing what he loves and always wanted. “We’re like tomatoes,” he says, “we’re either getting ripe or rotting.”