Signs for new times

Alex Ray, founder of The Common Man restaurant group, posts positive signs in front of its Concord location on Friday. Also pictured is Sean Brown, the company’s chief operating officer.

This too shall pass.

Do good every day.

Spread love.

Caring fosters courage.

The sun will come out tomorrow.

Alex Ray spent Friday driving to Common Man restaurants around New Hampshire to plant roadside signs.

He knows some people might find the signs a bit corny. But what else can he do but inspire optimism at a time when the company he founded nearly 50 years ago has lost 90 percent of its business? When 700 of his employees are out of work?

“We put a string of signs up in the road. They’re just so much fun,” Ray said after he and Chief Operating Officer Sean Brown finished their work Friday afternoon outside the Airport Diner in Manchester. They had already made stops in Concord, Plymouth and Tilton and were on their way to Merrimack.

Since COVID-19 precautions led to the shuttering of dine-in restaurants March 17, Ray and his remaining staff have spent much of their time preparing free meals for Common Man employees. The company donated $10,000 to an employee emergency fund and is reserving all gratuities from takeout sales to the fund.

Some customers buying takeout or gift certificates are driving home with free milk.

“I just went into the walk-in in Concord, and there’s 20 gallons of milk and 20 half-gallons of chocolate milk,” Ray said. “And we’re giving that away when they buy stuff.”

Ray has witnessed conditions far worse than this. His most recent relief mission had him spending two weeks in Abaco north of the Bahamas, where he helped build a kitchen to feed hurricane victims who were living in corrugated tin shacks with plastic roofs.

“The surge was 8 feet high so half of those people are gone. They just disappeared right into the ocean,” he said.

Even with those images to broaden his perspective, Ray suffered shock as he watched his business vanish and the bulk of his employees sidelined.

“I’ve turned the corner from ‘Why me? Why is this happening?’ to ‘What can we do and how can we do it?’ That took about five days,” he said, “to go from ‘goddammit!’ to ‘let’s go!’”

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Mike Cote is the business editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. Contact him at mcote@unionleader.com or (603) 206-7724.

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