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Business

Diner thrives with politics on the menu

N.H. diner hopping during presidential campaigns and in between

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The counter at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, N.H., was full.

MANCHESTER, N.H. - Fox News political reporter Carl Cameron is in the middle of a live broadcast from the cramped, 36-seat Red Arrow Diner, a popular photo opportunity stop for political campaigns swinging through New Hampshire before the state’s presidential primaries.

Between balancing plates of eggs Benedict and pouring cups of coffee, waitress Elaine Boule grabbed a Flip video camera to catch the reporter’s spiel. She will tape scenes like that for the cable network C-SPAN, a favorite of political junkies. After years of feeding the politicians and reporters who rush to New Hampshire for presidential primaries, the Red Arrow waitresses have become skilled at navigating TV shoots. “It gets a little hard on us girls to move around the crowds,’’ said Boule.

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In an economic climate that has shuttered many small businesses, the Red Arrow has floated above the economic fray - its reputation as a local hangout for national politics helping it prosper through tough times and the years between presidential primaries. In fact, business has been so strong, owner Carol Sheehan, a Manchester native, is looking to franchise.

According to Sheehan, business has grown more than 10 percent every year since President Clinton was in the White House. “My accountant is shocked,’’ she said.

The Red Arrow has frequently basked in the glare of national TV cameras. There was a big feature piece that appeared on the Food Network a few years back. In the late ’90s, the media swarmed as Vice President Al Gore made a surprise stop during his presidential campaign. “That’s when it all came together for us,’’ said Boule, who still has the $20 tip from Gore.

This year, the diner’s iconic red arrows were splashed across primetime campaign spots for candidate Mitt Romney, and ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer touted the Red Arrow’s diner fingers, a sort of homemade Twinkie, as a favorite snack.

That kind of fame is heady stuff, and has transformed the Red Arrow from local hash house to tourist attraction. “People arrive at the airport and ask, ‘How do I get to the Red Arrow Diner?’ ’’ said Kim Capen, the diner’s director of operations.

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The Red Arrow is open all night. To get a seat, you have to know its off hours. It’s crowded in the predawn hours; 4 p.m. is better. “We have a whole array of clients. Doctors and lawyers on one side, milkman on the other,’’ Sheehan said.

Sheehan opened a second Red Arrow in Milford, N.H., a few years ago. Now, she and Capen want to see the concept rolled out across New England and, eventually, the country.

“Diners transcend time. What you witness here today is what you would see in the ’50s,’’ said Capen, seated at the Formica counter under a red neon clock.

Part of the appeal is the lack of glamour, especially for those who have become jaded from the campaign trail. And like a true diner, the food is cheap. “These prices would be outrageous in D.C.,’’ said Dallas Hill, a sound engineer for C-SPAN eyeing the $10.99 Blue Plate special.

Back inside the Beltway, “diners are trendy and filled with hipsters,’’ said Hill. “This is the real place.’’

But such popularity with newcomers is not always easy on the local regulars. “I come here for the food and the help,’’ said Joe Trisciani, 77, a Manchester native.

Once a week, Trisciani comes in with his wife, Beverley, for fried smelts and sweet potato fries, and not to talk politics. “I don’t want to listen to’’ the candidates, he said. “I come to relax and eat.’’

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