NH-1 The Puritan Backroom
The Puritan Backroom, where Presidential candidates meet New Hampshire voters and sometimes tend bar.
Testing the waters, taking the temperature, shaking some hands, people considering a 2020 Presidential run have already been showing up in New Hampshire - Martin O’Malley, Eric Garcetti, Tim Ryan, Jason Kander. And, like almost all New Hampshire visitors seeking the highest office, they stopped in at the the Puritan Backroom in Manchester.
Bob Kerrey, then Nebraska Senator running in the 1992 Presidential primary, tended the Puritan Backroom bar for an hour. Al Gore, as Vice President running for President, hung out in the kitchen talking to staff. Bill Clinton arrived late one night in ‘92, and ended up watching a basketball game with the cooks.
The Puritan Backroom is a non-descript functional brown building surrounded by a wide girth of parking lot. When you’re there in the morning, as I was, the only clue that this place is more than a roadside New Hampshire restaurant with a 1960’s font are the solar panels on the back side and the people showing up for an ice cream cone at the take-out window by 10:30. By noon this acreage of lot fills up completely with lunch customers, and parking spills down the side street in the rear. They come for the chicken tenders and they stay for the politics.
Chris Pappas, 4th generation owner and manager of the Puritan Backroom told us, “you get a sense of people in an environment like this, you get a sense of who’s genuine and who’s a politician. People in New Hampshire understand how to deconstruct candidates and get to the core of who they are.”
Pappas, 38, grew up steeped in the Puritan Backroom culture, including the visiting politicians. He says he can track his life by which Presidential candidates he was meeting and seeing come through the restaurant.
‘I guess the ‘88 campaign was the first one I vividly remember. I remember meeting Bob Dole and really liking Bob Dole when I was eight. I was devastated that George Bush beat him in the New Hampshire primary that year.”
Quiet, serious, and boyish, Pappas is easy to imagine as an eight-year-old assessing candidates. Those early political experiences - and he will include the years of serving customers - have lead him to government service, too. Along with co-owning and managing the Puritan with his father and brother-in-law, Pappas has served two terms as a New Hampshire State Representative. Today he serves as an elected official on the New Hampshire Executive Council, and he’s running for U.S. House of Representatives in New Hampshire’s 1st Congressional District.
I asked him what he liked about Bob Dole.
“He was friendly and approachable, and seemed genuinely interested and concerned with meeting me. I appreciated that. In that campaign Bush was doing the read my lips pledge, and Dole was being very honest, and saying maybe we really do need to raise taxes to pay for important services, and I remember thinking, ‘well, that’s really honest.’” Remember, Pappas was just eight years old.
His parents are not Democrats, but Pappas said he knew even at that young age that he was a Democrat. “It just seemed like the Democratic party was people oriented.” His first earnest political allegiance was for Mike Dukakis in that 1988 election; Pappas did his first candidate campaigning from his elementary school, also the polling place that year.
“I remember being at school, and Dukakis and Tsongas were there, In my second grade class, people were lining up outside the windows, and I literally made several paper airplanes that said, ‘Dukakis’ on them, and threw them out the window at the people down below, probably violating all election laws.”
With 300 seats that fill up everyday and 235 employees who rarely turnover, The Puritan Backroom is a quintessential American immigrant success story. Arthur Pappas emigrated with his friend, Louis Canotas, to the United States from Turkish-occupied northern Greece in 1906. The friends partnered in 1917 to open a confection and ice cream store across from City Hall in Manchester, fatefully opening their doors on the first day of World War 1. Sugar and cocoa prices were prohibitive, but the two friends prevailed, and opened roadside ice cream stands throughout the region. Eventually, they consolidated the businesses to this Hooksett Rd. address. Arthur never took a day off.
As mentioned, the chicken tenders are famous here. USA Today wrote about their mythic status. Legend says they were invented in the Puritan kitchen in the 1970’s, when the cooks were trimming so many boneless chicken breasts that they had piles of these small cut-away filets. Someone thought to marinate them, coat them in breadcrumbs and fry them, and an American menu staple was born - except these really are crispier, more tender, more moist than any fried chicken part I’ve ever tasted. There’s something sweet in the marinade that compliments the crunchy, salt exterior. This is what makes the Puritan chicken tender fame legitimate. A Cook’s Country recipe attempts to recreate these famous chicken pieces with Chinese duck sauce in the marinade, but someone in the comments section said they had a friend who worked in the Puritan kitchen; that person contested that the sweetness comes from pineapple juice. Still, the Duck Sauce theory could be solid, as reviews say the Puritan makes their own, and it is so good it is worth purchasing in the take-out department.
Arthur Pappas and Louis Canotis had a third partner back in 1917 who, before he returned to Greece, taught them how to make the ice cream and confections. Today the Backroom sells 30,000 - 40,000 gallons of ice cream a year, all made in 10 gallon batches. Chris Pappas learned to make the ice cream when he was sixteen, a seeming right of passage, or else you just need to be strong enough to do it. Arm strength required. Not to be defeated by centuries of grapenut and buttercrunch flavors, the Puritan ice cream makers get creative. I had Baklava ice cream the first time I visited, and the second time I was the person at the window at 11:00 a.m. ordering what seemed like breakfast ice cream: coffee ice cream with chocolate pieces and chunks of homemade donuts folded in.
All the Puritan meals seem freshly prepared, come in overly generous portions, and have enough Greek-inspired flavors - like Greek macaroni and cheese - to refuse entry into the dull yankee food category. The staff is happy and welcoming. I was told that one gentleman comes here two to four times a day, every day: He has lunch. He comes back in the afternoon with his mail. He returns for dinner, and then finishes the evening with a stop for pie. Every day.
And that’s why the candidates come.
The Puritan Backroom attracts hundreds of customers a day, but it’s also a public place that welcomes politics, that eagerly anticipates candidate visits. I asked Pappas how he felt about the recent protests of government officials dining inside Washington restaurants. The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, VA, had asked White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her guests to leave because the restaurant staff was uncomfortable with her complicity in the Trump agenda. Stephanie Wilkinson, owner of the Red Hen, described the President’s politics in an interview in the Washington Post as “inhumane and unethical.” She cited that many of her staff are gay, and feel as if their lifestyles are particularly targeted by this administration’s views, particularly the decision to bar transgender people from the military.
While Wilkinson admitted in the Post that, of course, she wants her business to thrive, she added, “this feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.” This accounted for her decision to ask the Sanders party to leave.
Pappas saw things differently. His brown eyes saddened.
“To me when you operate a business like that, and you serve the public, you serve everyone, regardless of what their political persuasion is, and you want them to have a comfortable experience. And that’s why we’re the type of place that Republicans and Democrats feel comfortable coming to, and I wouldn’t want it any other way. I think there are much better ways to get your point across, to fight back against the disgusting comments and behavior of the Trump Administration, and other people that are representing him, than to toss someone out of their restaurant.”
Pappas, who is also the highest ranking LGBTQ elected official in New Hampshire, ended with this pointed equivalence:
“We saw a court case very recently about whether a business has to serve a gay couple looking for a wedding cake, and the court ruled against the gay couple and for the discriminatory practices of the business. So, I take that decision as an important cue that when you open your doors to the public you are opening them to everyone who comes in. As someone who is part of the LGBT community I would have a hard time with folks who worked for me to turn someone away.”
There are countless American traditions still flourishing at the Puritan Backroom: Kitchen ingenuity, family dinners, smiling candidates, political handshakes, bipartisanship, and small batch ice cream made from recipes created one hundred years ago by immigrants fleeing oppression, coming to this country full of mostly hope and stamina, maybe the most traditional recipe for the American experience.
Donald Trump never visited the Puritan Backroom.