HOOKSETT, N.H. (Jan. 9, 2012) — Posters and photographs plaster most every inch of the beige wooden panels in Robie’s Country Store and Deli.
Some are family portraits. Most are mementos of political campaigns that politicians left behind when they visited the diner. Like the autographed photo of John McCain in his naval aviator’s flight suit.
That’s the favorite of David Chouinard, 56, owner of the diner. He likes it best, he said, because it’s not the standard candidate pose. “It’s of when he was younger,” said Chouinard.
Robie’s — a wood-frame rectangle painted brick red — perched on the side of state Highway 3A. It is typical of the many diners that dot New Hampshire and are the bread and butter of the primary season. Retail politics have made a tradition out of candidates stopping at the diners to the win over voters.
Diners are an important stop in the campaign trail because New Hampshire voters expect to meet the candidates and shake their hands before committing to vote for them, said Ryan Williams, the spokesman for Mitt Romney’s campaign. Diners are a good place to find a wide variety of voters, he said.
“Diners are a place where people will meet to have breakfast and talk with their friends,” Williams said. “They’re reading the morning newspaper or talking about the news. So diners are a good place for candidates to meet people and discuss the state of the economy or other concerns.”
And the benefits work both ways. Election years boost the number of customers in the normally slow season of winter, said Chouinard, the owner of Robie’s. The diner is about 800 square feet, with eight tables. The place was packed on the Columbus Day weekend when Romney stopped in. People were lined up outside waiting to get in, recalled Chouinard.
“Romney came in from the side door and said, ‘I heard there’s a picture of my father here,’” Chouinard said. “He found it, and that was an emotional moment.”
Romney’s father, George Romney, ran an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency in 1968.
A signed photo of Mitt Romney now rests on the mantle under the poster from his father’s campaign.
The Chouinards have owned the diner for eight years. Romney is one of only two candidates to eat in the time they’ve owned the place, said Debbie Chouinard, 52, David’s wife. Romney ate a scoop of ice cream. The other candidate who ate was Rudy Giuliani, who ordered a bowl of chili.
Robie’s is a piece of New Hampshire history. It opened in 1822 and has been designate a national historic site. It was owned by the Robie family from 1887 to 1997. Robie’s has cemented itself as one of New Hampshire’s go-to stops for politicians on the campaign trail. Politicians began stopping there in the 1950s.
The last member of the original family owners, Dorothy Robie, 93, still comes into the restaurant occasionally to order her favorite Reuben sandwich. Dorothy Robie’s first and most memorable experience with a politician was when Jimmy Carter visited in 1976, she said. The visit is said to be the origin of the phrase, “Jimmy who?”
That historic moment happened between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m., and the Robies had just opened the store. Dorothy Robie was preparing the coffee when Carter walked in through the back. He said “Good morning” to Dorothy Robie without explaining who he was. Carter asked to see Lloyd Robie, who was downstairs in the sub-Post Office, recalled Dorothy Robie.
“Good morning. I’m Jimmy Carter, and I’m running for president,” Carter said to Lloyd Robie.
Lloyd Robie was deaf and wearing hearing aids in both ears. So, he responded to Carter, “Jimmy who?”
When Dorothy Lloyd heard people across the country saying, “Jimmy who,” she was shocked. “We didn’t tell anybody what Mr. Robie said,” she said, “so Mr. Carter must have gone and told his staff after, and it caught on.”
(Rebecca Kheel, a senior with dual majors in newspaper journalism and history, is covering the New Hampshire primary for The Berkshire Eagle.)