What is the mysterious force that makes diners so special? The menu? The retro feel? The hours?
Carol Sheehan, the Red Arrow Diner’s fifth owner, knows it’s all of those, but the essential glue that holds it all together, she says, is the people. People make diners the “focal point in the community,” places where doctors, garbage men, lawyers, high schoolers and homeless people chat and eat and, at the Red Arrow, have pored over the tabbed menus: “Breakfast 24/7, Lunch 24/7, Dinner 24/7.”
Now, for Carol, it’s been 24 hours for 25 years. In her early 20s she took over the establishment, which had been vacant for about two and a half years, as she recalls, due to the death of the previous owner’s wife.
“I really didn’t take any steps to bring it back to life other than reopening it. People came and were so excited to have the Red Arrow back,” she said.
Its clout continued to live on, and by 1998, things were right for a watershed year. Randy Garbin of Roadside magazine paid a visit and urged the diner to go smoke-free, saying it was the only thing holding it back. In May, Carol did it, a move which divided customers — some were even picketing outside — and was against her father’s recommendation.
“He said it was a big mistake; it was first time in my life I didn’t go with what he said,” Sheehan said.
Garbin’s glowing review dropped that July, and in September the Red Arrow was voted one of the top 10 diners in the country by USA Today. A slew of awards, honors and reviews followed. These days the Red Arrow needs no introduction; its 35 seats bring an average of 650 customers each day, Sheehan said, and that loyalty keeps it going.
“When I first started, I was taking a plunge,” Sheehan said. “There were once five locations, but the Lowell Street diner was the original. I had a knack for marketing and I always loved diners.”
Her father, George Lawrence, owned Belmont Hall on Manchester’s east side, and she and her sister grew up around the restaurant industry. Since she purchased the Red Arrow in 1987, the comfort food, coffee and vinyl stools that attract all walks of life haven’t changed much, and now Sheehan is putting it to the people to send in lists of their favorite things about the place. In this customer appreciation event, anyone who sends a list with at least five favorite things will be entered to win one of 25 prizes.
“Great food,” “EVERYTHING!!” and “Always Open” are a few selections from lists Sheehan received in the opening days of the giveaway.
Celebrities are a common draw at the diner, such as American Idol winner and recording artist David Archuleta, who was the No. 1 favorite thing about the Red Arrow for Boston-area native Ashley Moran.
“He’s been my favorite singer ever since he competed on American Idol. Furthermore, he’s actually the reason I found out about the Red Arrow Diner,” Moran said. “Three years ago, I was going to his concert in Manchester when he sent out a Tweet about going there and getting a bison burger. … He also mentioned it at his concert.” It was Ashley’s first time in town, and now the Red Arrow is usually the reason she comes back.
Archuleta is one of the many celebrities whose visits to the diner have been enshrined with images or autographs displayed around the diner, such as Ty Pennington, Sarah Silverman and Hillary Clinton. Perhaps the best-known is Manchester’s own Adam Sandler, who even built a replica of the Red Arrow’s exterior for the upcoming movie Grown Ups 2, which he is writing and producing.
Though Sandler himself didn’t make Moran’s list of favorite things about the diner, No. 15 on her list was the Adam Sandler Burger, a lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo-topped steakburger. “The famous Dinah Fingers!” came in third on her top 25.
William L.H., of Nashua, praised the homemade side dishes (No. 19 on his list) and the American Chop Suey (No. 13), but his list also hit on the Red Arrow’s caffeine delivery: The Moe-Coolatta and the 32-ounce Moe’s Giant to help him on “insomnia nights.”
“The 24/7 is great because on those insomnia nights, you go and they are there and open. My family one night was up at 3 a.m. and we decided to go. Sure enough they were open and happy to serve,” L.H. said.
For the last five years he has lived in New England, and when the Red Arrow popped up on Guy Fieri’s Drive-Ins, Diners and Dives on the Food Network, he decided to try it out. It reminded him of a favorite diner from his childhood in Cleveland, especially The Red Arrow Flyer meal, which made his list of favorites.
Although he has never met Carol or George, both of them made his list, because, he said, “it is comforting to know it is family owned and operated and local.” Employees echoed that sentiment, like Christina Marsh, who’s been a waitress for about six years and began at the Red Arrow five months ago.
“I love the atmosphere of this job, it’s so comforting. I enjoy coming into work,” she said.
Without a corporate feel, interacting with customers is more laid back, Marsh said. Even during third shift, 10:30 p.m. to 6 a.m., the customers are fun
“You get to be yourself in here. Everyone gets along. It’s a whole different atmosphere than other restaurants,” Marsh said.