America at work
How This New Hampshire Diner Became a Must-Stop Destination for Presidential Candidates
Free Enterprise Staff | November 7, 2016

Whether it’s because of their food, friendly waitstaffs, or Americana appeal, diners enjoy a unique status among politicians. Democracy is, after all, best served with a side of coleslaw. Among presidential candidates—a colorful group this year—Lindy’s Diner, in Keene, New Hampshire, is a must-stop destination.

If Lindy’s were a politician, it would best be classified—along with the Bushs, Clintons, and Roosevelts—in the “political dynasty” category. Yet its story is uniquely its own: Much like a carpetbagger, the physical building was manufactured in New Jersey in 1961 before it was literally transported on a flatbed truck to Keene.

The diner didn’t achieve the kind of notoriety candidates crave until 1973, when it was sold to George and Arietta Rigopolous. It was the Rigopolous family who transformed Lindy’s into a destination for aspiring politicians. In the decades since, it has played host to a cavalcade of notable public figures, current and former U.S. presidents among them.

The restaurant maintains that niche under its current owners, Nancy Petrillo and Chuck Criss, who purchased Lindy’s in 2003. Over the past 13 years, Petrillo and Criss have overseen a number of upgrades to the half-century-old eating establishment, including additions to its outdoor seating areas.

What else has changed? Well, public office seekers are coming in earlier and more often, Criss tells Free Enterprise. “Politicians start coming in long before the presidential elections,” he says. “It started last year in January, when people began showing up to discuss the race and meet locals.”

Related: In Data Politicians Trust: To win elections, politicians are increasingly using data in ways you’d never imagine. 

Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey and presidential hopeful, has been among Lindy’s recent patrons. His visit was emblematic of a familiar model, one that many politicians—whether intentionally or not—tend to follow when passing by.

“They usually don’t have anything to eat when they’re here,” Petrillo says. “They might snack on a cookie or have a cup of coffee. But, for the most part, they’re running from one meeting to another, and they’re here to catch up with their staffs and talk with the locals. They typically place a big to-go order for their entire staff, so we’re not always sure what their favorite menu items and preferences are.”

There are exceptions to that rule. Take Scott Brown, who represented Massachusetts for two years in the Senate before running for higher office in New Hampshire. During a stop at Lindy’s while on the campaign trail, he opted for the diner’s famous clam chowder—the New England variety, of course.

For their part, both Criss and Petrillo do their best to refrain from entering the potentially precarious world of politics. Sure, they love when politicians visit, and they will even reach out to ones whom they’re interested in meeting, but that doesn’t mean they want their private views made public. “I try to be as neutral as possible,” Petrillo says. “I don’t like to say what I think about anyone. They’re all politicians, and they’re all working for us, so I just try to be very neutral.”

There is one thing, however, that they do vocalize: Both Petrillo and Criss think it’s important that any politician makes time to talk with their customers. “We always hope they’ll talk to our customers,” Criss says. “Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. But it’s part of our logo: ‘Where politicians meet real people.’”

Related: Q&A With Jim VandeHei: During an Interview With Free Enterprise, the Politico Co-Founder Gets Real 

Much like a seasoned politico, the co-owners are diplomatic when it comes to their most memorable high-profile visitors. “We don’t have favorites,” Petrillo says, laughing. “Obama’s visit was probably the most interesting. He stopped by when he was running for president in 2007, and he had so much security with him, so it got a lot of attention. He held a roundtable at Lindy’s, and he ordered takeout—though I don’t remember what, exactly, he ordered—but Secret Service agents were in the kitchen watching us cook!”

The president might not have eaten his meal on-site, but he was a pleased customer. “He said the food was very good,” Criss adds. “Obama was very warm, very busy, but he was very nice. Most of them are very social and easy to talk to. They’re interested in small businesses, so they’ll often ask what it’s like to be a small business owner.”

So, apart from being universally polite and gregarious, how do our public officials rank in terms of their monetary generosity? “They are all good tippers,” Petrillo says. “They’re actually all  very good tippers!”