HOOKSETT — In 1973, Tom Walsh’s parents built and began operating the restaurant where the Wild Rover is currently located in Manchester. Ever since, he said he’s wanted to own his own diner.
For years he searched for the right location at the right price. He found it last fall, when the previous operators of Robie’s Country Store shuttered the historic landmark.
“I checked out a couple places on Route 3, but the rent was a little too much for what I was trying to do, and then this place came available, so I figured, hey, why not? And then I started looking at it and it’s kind of a perfect fit,” Walsh said. “I mean, I was born in Manchester, but I moved to Hooksett in ‘78. I’m a carpenter, which is helpful for this old place. I’ve got the experience in retail and service, and I like the town of Hooksett.”
Walsh officially reopened Thursday, but said he has plans in the works for a grand reopening in the near future. Though a long hard winter delayed his efforts, Walsh said it was fun to see all the interest from community members as he refurbished the interior of the building.
“It’s been crazy. Even through the construction process, it’s been nonstop with people coming through the doors, everybody’s curious,” he said. “I didn’t care. People got to get in and see the process as it went.
“It’s part of our past, and everybody loves the place,” Walsh continued. “The footprint hasn’t changed obviously. It has some limitations on what you can do because of its historic nature, but nothing that’s stoping me from cleaning, scrubbing ... painting here in there. You know, I redid the kitchen, and I’m not done. It’s like owning an old wooden boat, it’s never going to end.”
Hooksett resident Joe Slemp recently returned from a winter in Florida to find the store in new hands “I think Tom has done a great job in opening up everything, from the coolers, to the kitchen to the front dining room,” said Slemp. “Everything looks great.”
Over the years, Walsh has become deeply ingrained in the community. He currently sits on the Planning Board, is on the Town Hall Preservation committee, has recently been working on changing sign ordinances in town, and was elected as a state representative last year. Opening a store with a rich community heritage seemed a fitting next step, he said.
“It’s a little bit more than I was looking to do, you know, with the (general) store part of it,” said Walsh, “but history-wise, and the fit of everything else I’ve been doing and have been looking to do, it’s almost tailor made.”
The Robie family officially purchased the building in 1887. Four generations operated Robie’s Country Store through the next 110 years, welcoming dozens of big-name politicians, presidential candidates and Presidents through the years. In 1997, Lloyd and Dorothy Robie retired, prompting the formation of the Robie’s Country Store Historic Preservation Corp. (RCSHPC) to ensure the longterm preservation of the storied property, which is listed on the National and State Registers of Historic Places.
After the previous store operators closed the doors last September, the RCSHPC Board of Directors initiated a process to select the next owner. In January, they released a statement announcing Walsh as the choice.
Planning for future success
In the short-term, Walsh admitted he’s concerned about the pending Main Street Bridge work, which threatens to cut off more than half the town’s residents from accessing the store without significant effort. He said he’s hoping the New Hampshire Department of Transportation opts to extend the construction time and keep at least one lane open throughout the project.
“There’s about 13,000 cars a day that go over that bridge,” he said. “That would devastate me here. There’s no question about it.”
The long-term future, however, appears bright.
“I’m not even close to having this place inventoried the way it’s going to be,” said Walsh. “The country store should be bursting at the seams, but I got to the point where we had enough here to open ... the kitchen is up and running, and we’re just putting the finishing touches on our menu.”
Walsh said he also plans to reopen an ice cream stand, possibly outside the store. He also said he has some additional conceptual plans and ideas for the future, including a patio overlooking the Merrimack River.