He can’t. It’s just not his nature. Never was, never will be. The rest area “wheels” began turning in circa 2012 – like all the other “wheels” in Alex Ray’s 40-year career as the state’s most prolific (and colorful) hospitality magnate, with over 20 properties to his credit including the Common Man Restaurant Group and the Flying Monkey Movie House & Performance Center, to name a few. At the time, then-Gov. John Lynch, a friend – he uses the term loosely – asked Alex to consider bidding on the redevelopment of the North – and Southbound rest areas in Hooksett on I-93 to include modern welcome/visitor centers, concessions, fuel, and, of course, behemoth new monuments to wine and liquor. At first, he thought the Gov was either off his rocker or had misjudged his ability.
“’That’s for the Big Boys,’ I told John, ‘Aramark, Sodexo, Center Plate, and, besides, I don’t know the fast food service business.”’ But the Governor persisted and the more Alex thought about it, the more he thought, “why not me?” After all, absolutely no one bid on the project the first round. And, in the next, turned out the company that won had neither the financial resources nor the experience to pull it off.
So in typical Alex fashion, the “wheels” started moving on paper. Paper napkin, that is. Lots of them.
His “napkin” drawings, legendary in certain circles and often translated by close business associate and fellow entrepreneur, Rusty McLear, began piling up. Before very long the two had a bonafide plan including a handsome collection of quintessential New England-looking architectural renderings by the award-winning Ashland firm, Samyn-D’Elia.
“Thumb nail” right off the DOT fact sheet: “16,000 sq. ft. Welcome Center in a NH “mill building style;” will include 1950s-style diner, Italian farmhouse restaurant, old-time deli, coffee and breakfast shop, and country style convenience store.” My mouth may be watering typing it up but my eyes are watering, too, considering the larger ramifications of this project with Alex Ray’s fingerprints all over it. There ain’t nothin’ like this on any other U.S. Interstate in the whole country. (That either I or Alex know of.) Isn’t that a refreshing serving of creative private-public ingenuity?
Those of a more discerning, bottom-line ilk have already noticed I glossed over the part about Alex officially submitting and winning his bid, the numbers, the legalese, the crossing of the “t’s” and the dotting of the “i’s.” This is a food blog, remember? Suffice it to say, there were lots of cooks in the kitchen – the Governor, Executive Council, the Legislature, AG, DES, DRED, DOT, Liquor Commission, etc., but Alex was promoted in 2014 to Head Chef of this grandest of food courts (and everything else). BTW: a classically trained one with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America.
Standing with me last week in the midst of construction on the Southbound food court, Alex reflected back on those first days of the project and his voice grows strangely serious. “I gotta tell you. I was scared. There were nights I couldn’t sleep, thinking that government oversight was going to kill this thing. But it didn’t. It was my own fear that kept me awake.”
Hard-working, Granite State pride. That’s what I saw in the man that pointed out every obscure, brilliant, money-saving, mechanically superior, whimsical, thoughtful detail. That and a tired, green wool sweater with “pills” when he can more than afford the likes of Burberry.
When it comes to provisions, Alex doesn’t scrimp. He’s all about quality, local sourcing, and customer satisfaction. Hence, his relationship with, among other New Hampshire companies, the Wine’ing Butcher, for much of his meat supply including Boarshead for the deli shop. The Northbound side boasts a honking kitchen in the basement that will prepare the majority of fare for the various food court entities on both sides of the highway although the grill at the Hi-Way Diner was hot on Valentine’s Day afternoon when I stopped by for a second helping of Alex’s vision. The parking lot was packed with skiers from Massachusetts, devouring burgers and grilled cheese and fries like there was no tomorrow. And, guess who was flipping those paradigms of Yankee capitalism? You guessed it. Alex Ray.
The rest of the Northbound food court should be open by mid-March. The generous seating is in place waiting for you to sit down and take it all in. The high blue ceiling with faux fluffy clouds. The covered bridge by a master craftsman and an equally inspiring waterfall. Bathrooms that don’t make you shudder when you need to use them. A friendly and informative staff at an information desk provided by the NH Dept. of Resources and Economic Development. A lovely shop featuring the works of the League of NH Craftsmen.
Work continues at breakneck speed on the Southbound rest area where a real water wheel Alex rescued from a mill somewhere in his wanderings – at least 20-feet tall – will, eventually turn with water, symbolizing the spirit of economic development that is such an important facet of the Granite State’s continued vitality. A vitality made stronger by the financial contributions to the general fund – whether you like it or not – by the NH Liquor Commission as one of the few remaining alcohol “control” states in the country. Fifty percent of alcohol sales in the state are from out-of-state sales, sales which have increased dramatically as the Commission has renovated and/or built modern, consumer-friendly stores including the mega-stores in Hooksett.
In an era when government funding sources continue to decrease as the demand for government services are increasing at an alarming rate, private-public partnerships like the one between the Common Man and the state of New Hampshire, where the state will reap more than $40 million dollars in rent payments alone over the next 35 years, is more than uncommon, it’s a miracle. I’ve never been so excited to eat at a rest area until now. I hope you’ll join me.
About The Barking Tomato: Carolyn Choate loves to chew on food. Literally and figuratively. In the kitchen from her garden in Nashua or her favorite market, a restaurant across town or across the globe. When not masticating, Carolyn is likely swilling wine or spirits as neither is far from her heart – or lips. Forget diamonds and Louboutins, she’d rather blow a wad on Pinot Noir and grass-fed filet with fresh sautéed morels. And write about it. You taste the picture: The “Barking Tomato” aspires to push your “foodie” button. Carolyn’s day job is producing local affairs programming for WYCN-CD. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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