(Bloomberg) — Carol Lawrence moves down the wall of photos in her diner, pointing to Obama, Clinton, Giuliani. The White House wannabes all come because they want to connect with the regular folk at the counter.
There’s no one better to teach them how than Lawrence.
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At 51, she operates three thriving Red Arrow diners in New Hampshire, where every four years at this time these eateries emerge as players in the election of a U.S. president. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry has already paid a visit, with others sure to follow.
Lawrence started small, buying the original shuttered Red Arrow in 1987 in downtown Manchester along with an investor friend and her dad, George. The daughter-father duo — she’s president and he’s vice president now — has since opened two other Red Arrows, in Milford and Londonderry. Factor in a small catering business and their projected gross revenue this year is $6 million.
That’s a lot of pancakes. In the original diner in Manchester, a former textile city with its gallant old red-brick mills hard by the Merrimack River, an average of 650 people show up each day to fill 36 seats. The diner is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Often there is a line to get in as music blares out to the sidewalk. Lawrence says her latest Red Arrow to the south in Londonderry opened in March just in time for the 2016 campaign and will become the busiest of the three. Annual projected gross revenue: $2.5 million.
Meal prices are reasonable — this past Monday’s blue-plate special was two stuffed peppers with two sides for $6.99 — and the atmosphere casual. But as Lawrence begins each day in the Manchester diner with coffee, she is surrounded by the real keys to her success: the marketing gimmicks she has used to build a loyal constituency.
“I market, market, market,” she says with a laugh.
On sale are coffee mugs with the cartoon faces of the diner mascots, Moe and Dinah. Lawrence held a contest to come up with their love story. The winner: they met in the dishwasher. “We ship those mugs all over the world,” she boasts.
The same goes for Red Arrow’s homemade Twinkie-like cakes. One batch went to Diane Sawyer after Lawrence heard the network anchor had a hankering.
A waitress rings a bell to introduce every first-time visitor in a Red Arrow tradition known as de-virginizing (Hillary Clinton’s people once called in advance to ask that she not be inducted. Lawrence says Clinton may have never known and probably would have enjoyed it.) Children get their meals served on a blue Frisbee-like plastic saucer they can take with them.
Lawrence’s first foray into promotion came in the late ’90s when a young man called to reserve a booth so he could propose marriage to his girlfriend. She hung a sign where they’d be seated and called the state’s largest newspaper, the Union Leader. The proposal — and the Red Arrow — were on the front page the next day. The Red Arrow has been featured as one of USA Today’s top 10 diners and on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”
Chalk up the accolades to Lawrence’s attention to detail, the care she takes in making sure people leave satisfied — lessons some candidates would have done well to emulate.
Lawrence remembers former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 2008 made no attempt to be gracious. On the other hand, Bill Clinton, in his first campaign, was so careful to meet everyone that he even went into the kitchen to talk to the cooks. “His people kept yelling that he had to leave,” Lawrence says. Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor who campaigned in 2008, was equally friendly. He ordered a side of bacon and toast and liked the bacon so much that he asked for another order.