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On the Road

On The Road: A Tender Side to a Political Battleground

At the Puritan Backroom Restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, the owners know what the people want: chicken tenders.
By Published Jan. 18, 2022

The Puritan Backroom restaurant in the swing state hub of Manchester, New Hampshire, has been well-known as a campaign stop for presidential hopefuls for decades. But that's not its only claim to fame. This locals' hangout, which grew out of a confectionery originally founded across town in 1917, is the birthplace of one of America's most iconic foods: chicken tenders.

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During the Great Depression, commerce in downtown Manchester slowed. In 1938, the Puritan relocated to a takeout window on Hookset Road on the outskirts of town and reset its menu. It sold hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream and built a loyal following. In 1974, the owners opened a sit-down restaurant, too, which they called the Puritan Backroom. The menu again demanded an expansion.

Third-generation owner Arthur Pappas recounts that soon after the Backroom opened, a salesman approached his father, Charles, wanting to unload an abundance of chicken “scraps.” Charles bought the tenders, created a secret marinade, and then breaded and fried up the strips in batches. Soon the tenders outsold everything else on the menu. Today the Backroom serves up to six tons of tenders in any given week and up to eight tons during Christmas vacation week.

And in past election seasons, customers have included Clintons and Bushes, as well as Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney, just to name a few. During the 2016 campaign, Pappas says, at least 14 candidates stopped by for a plate of tenders and a photo op.

Standing in the kitchen beside two massive copper bowls, relics of the old confectionery that are now used for mixing batches of dipping sauce, Arthur tells me he still works 90-plus hours a week. “I was taught that way, and I don't know any better.” He shares the workload with his son and fourth-generation co-owner, Christopher Pappas, who's started a second career as a politician and member of New Hampshire's Executive Council.

While it occupies a plum corner on the national stage, the Puritan Backroom remains a hometown affair and an ingrained part of the Manchester community. When I inquire what the future holds for him and how long he can keep working so many hours, Arthur grins. “My retirement will be [working] 40 hours a week … but don't tell my wife.”