New Hampshire woke up this morning to ever tightening Republican and Democratic 2016 primary races. The latest news was hashed out over eggs and bacon at diners across the state. And if there is anyone familiar with the presidential hopefuls, it’s the men and women in aprons on the dining-room floors and behind the counters who have been serving them over the past year as they’ve touched down in the Granite State.
The nearly 100-year old Red Arrow diner sits on a side street in downtown Manchester. Many consider it the epicenter of presidential politics in New Hampshire because everyone comes here.
“This is the heart of Manchester, and with the early primaries, and being the largest city, it’s a natural choice.”
Lucus Huering, who stood behind a crimson counter, has heard it all; from campaign aides and operatives, political reporters and producers, Republicans and Democrats, all sitting side by side—sometimes uncomfortably—at this 24 hour hotspot.
Watching the wait-staff serving customers at the Red Arrow, I’m reminded that it was a bartender who helped take Mitt Romney down in 2012. He video recorded the candidate remarking that 47 percent of the nation just wanted “free stuff” and he reportedly failed to shake the hands or talk to the servers at that private Republican fundraiser.
But whatever Lucus Huering knows and has discovered up close and personal, he’s not telling.
“Insider information, I’m sorry I have not. No sir, no sir. Pan fries is my business,” he said laughing.
By one count, thirteen Republican candidates have visited the Red Arrow diner over the past year, and waitress Crystal Bramante has served a few of them.
“Back in the spring, Scott Walker came in with Scott Brown and then Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz and recently I met Donald Trump.”
Huering also recalled Donald Trump’s unannounced afternoon visit in mid-January.
“Not a normal politician, ordered food. Mostly they’re here for a photo op—taking pictures and drinking coffee—whereas this guy came in and actually ordered food, which is pretty cool.”
And what did he order, I asked Huering?
“A Newton Burger, which is a serious sandwich. This is two grill cheeses and a burger, however you want it, cooked, fried mac and cheese and cheese sauce. He ate about half of it and French fries! So he came in for lunch and he got his fill.”
Boy did he. Trump also got an earful from one irate diner.
“A tourist, a non-New Hampshirite, called him a racist. ‘Enjoy your burger you racist’, “Huering recalled.
Trump’s unidentified tormentor, who was visiting from South Carolina, told ABC News she had no regrets. But Huering believes this famous diner is the wrong place to heckle politicians.
“I think anyone should be able to come here and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner anytime free of ridicule,” he said with a smile.
So this is ridicule free-diner? I asked.
“Judgment Free Zone. You can order whatever you want, as many calories as you want. Come on down, we’ll take care of you,” said Huering, a thin man in his early thirties.
Huering preferred not to reveal his own political leanings in a diner packed with folks wearing political buttons of every sort. But a few miles up the road at the Puritan Backroom it’s a different story:
“I’m voting for Bernie,” waiter Cameron Lawrence volunteered.
Lawrence has worked the floor and counter of this restaurant—famous for its chicken tenders—for seven years. 24-year old Chelsea Thibeault has been here for ten, starting part-time as a teenager.
The Pilgrim itself is nearly as old as the first in the nation primary—100. But between them, Thibeault and Lawrence have seen their own fair share of former Presidents and Presidential hopefuls walk through these doors.
“We’ve seen Hillary. Marco Rubio,” said Lawrence.
“Every one but Donald Trump, “added Thibeault with an unapologetic smirk.
"Donald Trump did not get a thumbs-up from you?" I asked her.
“No, he did not. I’m a recent college graduate and I work two full time jobs at part-time pay and I have a lot of loans and he has nothing to offer that will help me fix that.
So whom is she cheering for? “Anyone but him,” she said laughing.
Actually 24 year-old Chelsea Thibeault has a clear political preference:
“I like Bernie too. We could name an ice cream after him. Maybe he’ll come. The ‘Bernie Blizzard’. We could throw like cookie dough and brownies in there. It would be so good.”
A woman at the counter wearing a Cruz button and listening to the conversation looked slightly irritated. CNN is the channel of choice at the Puritan and it beamed from a television on a shelf above the counter. Both Fox and MSNBC –considered political opposites by the broader public—are never on in this restaurant, said Thibeault.
And she said she tries to keep her opinions to herself.
“I try not to speak too loud in my opinions just cause it’s a professional place, I mean obviously with you it’s ok, but I mean I don’t try to voice my opinion too loud while the customers are in here just cause I like to respect everyone’s opinion.”
“Everyone who’s come in has been very gracious. They try to shake everyone’s hand,” said Thibeault.
She takes careful mental notes about how visiting Presidential candidates treat the people who work here. And her colleague, Cameron Lawrence, gives a special shout-out to both Bill Clinton, campaigning on behalf of Hillary, and to Marco Rubio.
“Bill stopped in here by himself with obviously some secret service but he went around the restaurant and shook everyone’s hand, said Lawrence. “We have a general manager here who is disabled, has a hard time walking. He was sitting at one of the bar stools the other day when Marco Rubio came in and spoke to him for about 20 minutes. It was refreshing to see someone take the time out of their day.”
And Chelsea Thibeault added: “Especially when that person has the potential to be our next President.”