Alex Ray, shown here in top-right photo, spent nine days in Puerto Rico last month to make food for people struggling after two devastating hurricanes. He is shown here trying to shop for ingredients. (Courtesy photo)
Common Man’s Alex Ray skips vacation to assist the people after devastating hurricane
By ADAM DRAPCHO, LACONIA DAILY SUN
Alex Ray, founder of the Common Man family of restaurants, isn't one to take a lot of time for himself, so it was a bit unusual for him to plan a European vacation for himself and his partner for October. That was before the hurricanes, Irma and then Maria, ripped through Puerto Rico.
"I had booked a trip to Italy for the 12th of October. As it got closer, I said, I can't go there. I can't go on a vacation," not while so many people were struggling to survive, he said. Instead, he booked a ticket for San Juan, where, for nine days, he cooked and distributed food to people whose communities were destroyed.
Ray had a business acquaintance who offered use of his home in San Juan. Once there, he was introduced to a man who had three restaurants in the city. There was no electricity, which meant no exhaust fans and no lights in the kitchens, but they could get propane for the stoves and ovens.
"So I jumped in," said Ray. In the afternoons, he would scour supermarkets for whatever food was available – usually just rice, beans and meat, no fresh produce. In the mornings, he and a team of volunteers would cook about 2,000 meals each day, and around 12:30 p.m. another team of volunteers would fill their personal vehicles with containers of food to distribute to villages outside of the capital city.
"After the fifth day, I said, I want to see how you do this." He accompanied a delivery driver to the coastal town of Toa Baja, which had been flooded with as much as ten feet of seawater from the storm's surge. The effect this had on the villagers was apparent by just driving down the road.
"They had nothing left in their houses – all their stuff was in the streets. Everything in their house was gone," said Ray.
And that's why he went. He could have stayed in New Hampshire, or continued with his plans for a vacation in Italy, and donated to the relief effort. However, Ray wanted to see the devastation first-hand, to work alongside Puerto Ricans, and to leave his own sweat on the island.
"By going there, you get a lot more interest," he said.
He also got a sense of how he might provide financial help. Ray's customers raised more than $20,000 to help people in Puerto Rico – a figure which will be matched by the company – and he's heading back to the island this week to distribute the funds. He is also hoping to recruit a handful of people that would be interested in working for him in New Hampshire. At this point, he said that might be the best way to help Puerto Rico.
"Give them jobs. It can't hurt us – we're looking for good workers, they're good people. These are U.S. citizens, there's no problems except you might have to buck up and help them get here," he said, citing the cost of air travel from Puerto Rico. He plans to hire a small number of people from Puerto Rico for the off-season, and said he may increase that number when business picks up next year. "I want to try it. We could always use good people here."
This isn't the first time that Ray has felt compelled to visit a disaster zone. In 2005, he loaded a van full of ingredients and a propane burner and drove to New Orleans, where he cooked for relief workers. His restaurants raised more than $100,000 for that disaster.
Ray's responses to these types of catastrophes makes for good publicity for his businesses, but that's not why he does it. For him, it's not a way to operate a business as much as it is a way to approach life. Do something good, and more good will follow, he believes.
"It's a contagious thing. I call it the 360 – it comes back around," he said.
Supermarket cooler cases were empty due to long-term power outages. (Courtesy photo)
Ray and others worked together to prepare 2,000 meals per day, which were distributed to towns outside of San Juan. (Courtesy photo)