Ray built a restaurant empire that gives back

Alex Ray, owner and founder of the Common Man, gives a tour of the food court area at the new Hooksett Welcome Center which features a stone bridge and reclaimed timbers on Monday.

HOOKSETT — Alex Ray created a wildly successful, iconic restaurant and hospitality chain that has offered affordable dining and friendly service in a quintessential New Hampshire setting.

But the 72-year-old businessman, philanthropist and citizen activist said he’s most proud for having forged a network of 1,200, year-round employees who, more than he, advanced a belief that giving back to the community is more rewarding than just adding to the bottom line.

A New Jersey native, Ray fell in love with New Hampshire when his family moved to North Conway when he was 14.

He’ll always remember the sage advice his father gave him.

“My dad taught me, work hard, have a good ethic and do not be greedy,” Ray said. His dad sold a profitable vending-machine business before moving the family to the state.

“I have never seen a guy or gal who was happier because they were making more and more money,” Ray said. “Sure, it’s important to have enough to put food on the table and keep your family comfortable, but it’s giving back that is most rewarding.”

Ray will be honored next month with a Granite State Legacy Award for his achievements and contributions. The award honors accomplishments of New Hampshire citizens from all walks of life who have given much to their state over a period of years.

This November, Ray will celebrate the 46th anniversary of the first Common Man Restaurant, in Ashland.

Since then, his thriving business expanded across the state with 16 restaurants, two Common Man inns, a spa, a company store and the Flying Monkey Movie House & Performance Center in Plymouth.

Ray says his “swan song” is the construction of the Hooksett welcome centers on the F. E. Everett Turnpike. The complexes, which opened in 2014, each includes a New Hampshire-themed period diner, shops and a gas station, in addition to a state-operated liquor store. Ray and a small group of investors beat out hospitality giant Marriott Corp. in a bidding competition for the project.

“What happened was they wanted something different than the rest of the country,” he said. “I’m quite proud of it.”

Meanwhile as his business grew, his philanthropy flourished. The restaurant chain has raised money following many disasters, from the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York to the Haiti earthquakes and Hurricane Katrina.

Time and again, Ray not only put his money where his heart was but also went to the disaster scenes to deliver those resources on the front lines.

Long before the opioid epidemic gripped New Hampshire, Ray was a forerunner in raising money and devoting time to battle alcohol and drug abuse. The Farnum Center honored him last July by opening the Alex Ray House, an intensive, residential treatment center for drug addicts at the site of a former orphanage in Franklin.

“I’ve always tried with my non-profit work to focus on people that really need help. The beautiful part of New Hampshire is many of those who are successful do give back but if you spread yourself too thin, you end up doing less,” Ray said.

While many developers have beckoned with offers to expand into neighboring states, Ray has rejected all of them.

Presented by the New Hampshire Union Leader and sponsored by Eastern Bank, the annual Legacy Awards program was launched in 2012. The New Hampshire Union Leader and Eastern Bank are proud to celebrate the accomplishments of these distinguished residents.

This year’s awards will be presented Wednesday evening, June 7, at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $45 and include hors d’oeuvres and cocktails.

To register for the event, visit unionleader.com/legacy, call 206-7834 or email ewhalen@unionleader.com

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