An uncommon crisis hurts the Common Man

  • Common Man server Kate Ross (left) and bartender Alexis Ross stand inside the front entrance of the Concord restaurant on Tuesday. Ross and Martine were there to bring out takeout orders to people in the parking lot. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Alex Ray, owner of the Common Man restaurants around the state, puts up a sign earlier this year after the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic. Courtesy of the Common Man

  • The Common Man restaurant on Water Street in Concord next to exit 13 on Tuesday, October 13, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 10/13/2020 4:25:37 PM

These days, after seven months, we’re still waiting.

Waiting to see family and friends, feeling safe to hug and shake hands. Waiting to fly, attend sporting events, see a movie or a show, attend classes, eat out.

Alex Ray, the pioneering restaurateur whose Common Man empire is a Granite State institution, is waiting for all that, plus more: He needs the test results on 10 employees, checked for COVID-19 last weekend after working closely with a staff member who said she’d tested positive.

Then, and only then, can Ray even think about reopening the doors for in-house dining at the Common Man Restaurant here in Concord, one of 15 scattered across the state. Its take-out business remains open.

The rest is a waiting game.

“This COVID was scary, and we knew we had to go to tables with gloves and not touch the tables, and now that is the new normal. Now menus are on cell phones so you’re not transferring to the menus,” he said. 

That’s what doing business is like these days, one day you’re open, the next day you’re not. Find new ways to evolve in an ever-changing world. 

“You do not adjust the wind. You adjust the sails,” Ray said, quoting one of the colorful signs planted in front of his restaurants. 

Ray has lots of little sayings. He exudes optimism and confidence that things will turn around. He prides himself on treating his staff with respect and kindness, and in return, he gets loyalty and professional service, and in turn, his ship has remained afloat.

He’s got a title for his business strategy, his method, his model, calling it a “360,” as in a full cycle that gives and gets. It’s a simple formula that, apparently, is not lip service, not a facade from a man who’s forgotten his roots.

“If my employees like you and us, then they are happy,” he said. “The staff won’t act like, ‘Oh, no, another customer.’ They say, ‘Oh, is this your first time here?’ If you do well, they will come back.”

He noted that the 50th anniversary of the opening of his first Common Man, in Ashland, is next year. He was 26.

As Ray likes to say, “It’s been 50 years of telling everyone who works for me to speak nicely to the customers. They learn and you learn. You can be a teacher and a student at the same time.”

He continued, addressing his staff, one of his favorite topics: “Now I’m happy and proud of our staff. I’m at 82% of the same sales as last year at this time. It took us all this time to get it back. I’m proud of them, we took a major annual hit.”

It happens in business. But, even at 75, Ray has kept his vision and creativity youthful. How else to explain the additions he’s made to his financial spheres of influence: two inns, a spa, a company store and the Flying Monkey Movie House in Plymouth, one of the most popular live music clubs in the state.

And with the resources he’s accumulated, Ray sounded as though he’s ready, willing and able to take a giant step forward. This was clear when he said he viewed current events – a pandemic that has killed thousands of people and businesses – as an evolutionary process, a change that was inevitable, a change that, for him, posed a challenge, not a problem.

“It’s really enlightening with the new normal,” Ray told me. “With Zoom now you are talking to your managers and it will be something that will be really good for us.”

But remember, Ray is a businessman whose open mind has always included reality, now matter how bleak. As Ray sees it, the new normal will not be rosy for everyone.

For him, a streamlined communications process and savings on overhead will mean profit. In some cases, though, there will be collateral damage.

“For those who own professional buildings in New York City, this could be fatal,” Ray said. “People have to wait on the George Washington Bridge for an hour and then park and go up the elevator and worry about child care and disruptions.

“You think you may have to cut out 30 percent of the skyscrapers because no one is working there. We are going through things that are painful, but we will come out of it.”

There have been consequences, of course. Ray furloughed 600 staffers earlier this year and watched as some battled their way through the unemployment insurance process, at times growing desperate for money.

This is where Ray’s area of expertise helped. His policy that helps people in the short term, and business in the long run. He made sure his employees were given Common Man meals. He sent staffers out with goody packages of white chocolate and ice cream and discount coupons and special deals.

“When we were able to open and had to be six feet apart and wear masks, that helped us,” Ray said, “so then we said how can we keep our brand in front of the people.”

He hoped increased interest in his restaurant would mean more work and fewer layoffs. He spent thousands of dollars on masks for Granite Staters.

By then, his positive profile had already been established through the renovation of old buildings and the creation of new ones like the Welcome Centers on Interstate 93 in Hooksett. He encouraged and insisted that his staffers give back to the community, offering them days off for fundraising activities.

COVID-19 never cared about any gesture of goodwill. The virus loves invading our fun. Just like it did at Jumpin’ Jay’s Fish Cafe in Portsmouth, where a patron who had tested positive might have later infected people in the bar. Jumpin’ Jays closed on Oct. 7 and remains closed.

At Ray’s Concord Common Man, a service worker last weekend called the restaurant and said she’d tested positive for COVID-19. Following official guidelines, the 10 workers who had at least 15 minutes of close contact with the ill staff member were sent home, tested and quarantined.

The dining room doors closed last Saturday and remain closed. Take-out remains an option. Ray said he’s not sure when his employees will know their test results.

He’s not sure when customers can return, seated and relaxed. He’s not sure how long our society and the business community in general will remain, at least partially, closed. And he’s not sure what the forecast is, with winter on the way.

“We’re okay now,” Ray said. “With the winter, I’ll tell you next spring.”

 Meanwhile, all he can do is wait.




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