Red Arrow Diner was thrilled to be featured on the front page of New Hampshire Union Leader on August 28, 2022. Special thanks to Mike Cote and David Lane from the Union Leader for making this happen. Co-owners Carol Lawrence, George Lawrence and Amanda Wihby sat down for an exclusive interview with Union Leader senior editor, Mike Cote. Click here to read the article on the Union Leader website with a subscription, click here for a print-ready PDF, or check out the full article below.
If you want to meet the regulars at the Red Arrow Diner, you need to show up at 6 a.m. That’s when the early morning crowd shuffles in.
“We have fantastic regulars here. You never know who is going to walk in the door,” said server Robin Deary, who has worked the morning shift for nearly five years. “It’s always dinner and a show, but in a good way.”
If you arrive early, you’re less likely to be rattled by the brass bell that announces first-timers to the Manchester landmark.
At mid-morning Thursday, waitress Katie Hayden rang the bell twice within a half hour. Newbies in the house.
“We have two Red Arrow virgins from Haverhill, Mass. Can we give them a nice welcome?” Hayden announced, prompting applause in the nearly packed diner.
The Lowell Street restaurant, founded in 1922 by David Lamontagne, has a compact L-shaped dining room with enough space for five booths and 16 bar stools. It’s the kind of place where your coffee cup won’t stay empty for long, where the servers call everyone “babe” and “honey,” and where you have to walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom. (Follow the giant arrows on the ceiling. Don’t go left.)
While the 24-hour diner has burgers and sandwiches on the menu, it’s best known as a breakfast haunt. New England staples like baked beans and pork pie are served up with eggs, bacon and toast.
Hayden joined Red Arrow 10 years ago at the company’s former location in Milford. She helped open the diner’s sister restaurants in Concord, Londonderry and Nashua.
“I like it here. They’re all really good, but this is the original,” she said.
Also working the room Thursday morning was Ellen Ryan, a 16-year veteran — all at the Manchester flagship.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff with this old bird,” Ryan said. “Met a lot of cool people, too.”
The walls of the diner are covered with framed photos of those people. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Rudy Giuliani, John Sununu and Hillary Clinton. Kevin Costner, Sarah Silverman, Adam Sandler and Guy Fieri.
Sandler, who grew up in Manchester, had a replica of the Red Arrow built in Marblehead, Mass., where he filmed “Grown Ups 2” in 2012. Fieri featured the diner in an episode of “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in 2007.
On the wall at the back of the diner, a black and white photo shows former owner Levi Letendre behind the counter and a young girl seated at one of the bar stools.
“She’s 53 now,” said Patrick “P.J.” Audley, who took the photo of his daughter all those years ago. On Thursday, Audley was having breakfast with his girlfriend, Lynn Kraics. The Concord resident, who grew up in Bedford, visits the Red Arrow once a month. He first started dining here 60 years ago as a teenager.
“I like the corned beef hash over eggs with a side of beans,” Audley said.
Craig Whitehead was visiting from New Jersey to work the medical detail at Friday’s Nitro Circus dirt bike event at Delta Dental Stadium.
He hadn’t been to the Red Arrow in 10 years but always shows up when he’s in town.
“Red Arrow is the place to get breakfast,” he said.
Burger for breakfast
Red Arrow owner Carol Lawrence has a confession.
“I own a diner, and I don’t like breakfast,” Lawrence said during an interview at the company’s corporate offices on Elm Street.
Lawrence usually starts her day with a protein shake. If she visits the Red Arrow, she’s ordering Clem’s Smash Burger — a fresh, hand-formed patty split in two and topped with caramelized onions and American cheese.
“That’s what I would eat for breakfast,” she said.
Lawrence was joined last week during an interview about the company’s history by co-owners George Lawrence, her father, who came out of retirement several years ago to help her run the company, and Amanda Wihby, who started at Red Arrow 13 years ago as a part-time receptionist.
Lawrence’s sister and brother-in law, Cathy and Steve Kuliga, operate Belmont Hall, a third-generation family business where Carol Lawrence got her start at age 10, peeling potatoes with her brother on Sundays.
“Memere used to teach us to take apart chicken. If we didn’t take all the chicken off the bone we were in trouble,” she said.
Carol Lawrence became the fifth owner of Red Arrow in 1987. Her father, who was operating Belmont Hall at the time, offered mentorship and financing.
“We had a family friend that said, ‘Come on. We’re going for a ride,” she said, recalling her first trip to the Red Arrow.
“I’m 23 years old. I didn’t even know what the Red Arrow was. He said, ‘Do you want to run it?’ He chatted with my dad. And the three of us together — their money, not my money — (bought the restaurant).”
George Lawrence was reluctant to buy the diner back then, but these days, he spends more time overseeing the four Red Arrow restaurants than his daughter, who also owns a sewing and quilting store in Salem.
Over the years, Carol Lawrence has enjoyed the marketing part of the business the most. She created a weekly contest for kids to color one of the Diner Doodle sheets of cartoon mascots Moe and Dinah, which are then posted on the wall, also a tradition at the other locations the company began opening in 2008.
“You have no idea how many times I’ve rigged that because I’ve had parents call me and say, ‘Would you please let my kid win? They do this every week, and they are trying to win.’” One of her toughest but most rewarding decisions was to go smoke-free in 1998.
“We had two smoke-eaters in there. I would question bringing my own kids in there at certain times of the day. It was so gross,” she said. “My husband would bring something home from a diner, like a piece of pie, and you would taste the smoke.”
The morning the Red Arrow enacted the new policy, picketers protested outside the diner. They were wasting their time.
“That was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “My revenue went up 18% that first year.”
The company’s biggest challenge in 2022 is finding employees. Because of a staffing shortage, the Lowell Street diner is the only Red Arrow location open 24 hours.
“Lowell Street stayed (open) 24 hours through COVID. The others couldn’t do it,” George Lawrence said. “Can’t get no help. We cannot get the others aboard. We can’t even get them to 10 o’clock sometimes.
They’ve made progress, only to experience more setbacks.
“Just when you think you’ve got all the puzzle pieces together, one piece falls off,” Carol Lawrence said.
The pandemic prompted the company to try delivery, which didn’t work out well, and online ordering, which continues to be a bright spot. They also have become more efficient by preparing baked goods in Londonderry and menu items like soups, chowders and chicken salad in Nashua. A commissary van leaves Londonderry with desserts and picks up prepared foods in Nashua along the way.
“And then we need less people at the other locations to do all that prep work. That’s been another way for us to pivot from COVID,” said Wihby, who runs dayto- day operations with George Lawrence.
The company also faces supply-chain issues — “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset,” Wihby jokes — and higher food prices. The company’s vendor price for chicken tenders has quadrupled since the pandemic, hitting $5.50 a pound.
“That’s 43 cents for one chicken tender,” George Lawrence said.
While George Lawrence is a bit wary about the restaurants’ post-pandemic future, his daughter and Wihby are confident the Red Arrow will persevere.
“We’ve survived 100 years. We’ve survived world wars. We’ve survived a depression, the pandemic,” Wihby said. “It’s really a testament to the community that they come and they support us. We’re very humble and grateful for that.”
Celebrating a century
The Manchester Historic Association is presenting the Red Arrow Diner with the Century Club Award at the 30th annual Historic Preservation Awards on Sept. 8 at Manchester Community College.
On Oct. 15, the Red Arrow will host a celebration from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Manchester flagship diner on Lowell Street. Food will be available for $5 a plate, with proceeds going to the Red Arrow’s downtown neighbor, Waypoint, a nonprofit that provides family services. The company plans to close all its locations during the hours of the catered event so that employees can attend.
The Red Arrow has invited the original owners, the Lamontagne family. They’re also hoping they can convince Adam Sandler to stop by.
That last one’s a longshot, but there’s a good chance you might meet some of the regulars without having to get up at 6 a.m.