At Geno's, the Chowder Comes with a Heaping Side of Primary Politics
Throughout the 2016 presidential season, NHPR will bring you profiles of the people and places behind the scenes of the New Hampshire Primary. We start with Geno's Chowder and Sandwich Shop, an iconic campaign stop in Portsmouth for candidates looking to meet voters - and maybe sample a lobster roll.
You’re not going to just stumble upon Geno’s Chowder Shop. It’s a solid half mile from the bustle of downtown Portsmouth, near a fishing dock, at the end of a tiny street lined with tiny cottages. You have to know how to get there.
Outside, the place looks like many seafood restaurants along the New England coast. But step inside, and you start to get a sense of Geno's rich political heritage: walls lined with campaign buttons from Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Ross Perot. In fact, in its 50 years in business, Geno's has become a regular stop along the New Hampshire campaign trail. And given the number of Republican candidates running for president, it may be Geno’s busiest year yet.
Emily Fernald, whose family owns Geno’s, busses plates of chowder on a deck overlooking the Piscataqua River. She's only been old enough to vote for two years. But, she says, “I have probably met more people running for president than I can remember.”
Emily’s mom, Francesca Fernald, is weighing meat for the 34th lobster roll of the day. She reminds her daughter of the time, at three years old, she sat on Barbara Bush’s lap, eating fish chowder with the wife of former governor Judd Gregg.
In fact, at Geno’s, it’s not usual for people to date their lives by presidential campaigns. Asked how long she’s been at the restaurant, Francesca says, “Since Barry Goldwater, 1964.”
When Francesca’s parents bought this place in the 1960’s, it was just a barn. Half a century later, Geno’s Chowder Shop is one of the state’s landmark presidential campaign stops. And when the candidates are in town, they defer to the proprietor – asking where to sit and what to order.
Republican Carly Fiorina is the only candidate to book an event here so far this year. Still, Francesca expects a busy campaign season, if recent history is any guide. The list of visitors from recent elections is long: John McCain, Ron Paul, Rudy Guiliani, and Mitt Romney.
Even the regulars here have a political bent. Eating his usual (chicken salad sandwich) John Hill says there aren’t too many other places in this Democratic-leaning city that feel like home to a Republican. There’s Geno’s, and then there’s his barber.
“Who, if he were a Democrat, I wouldn’t let touch my head,” Hill jokes.
So how does a sandwich shop become a political stomping ground?
It starts with Francesca’s parents. The late GenoMarconi, the place’s namesake, was a lobsterman. His wife Evelyn was a homemaker. When they started Geno’s, he caught the lobsters and she ran the shop.
But Evelyn Marconi, now close to 90, had what you might call proclivity for politics.
“I was always very concerned and very conscientious about what was going on politically because I figured it would affect me one way or another and it always did,” Marconi says.
Marconi was raised poor, by a single dad on Marcy Street. It’s now a comfortable neighborhood near Prescott Park, but it was once known as Portsmouth’s “red light” district. At age 12, Marconi says, she was holding posters at the polls on Election Day. As an adult, she’d track down every local candidate she could to hear personally what they had to say.
“And eventually some of them started to come down here and I thought that was very flattering,” Marconi said.
Soon, Marconi was a member of Portsmouth’s city council and an insatiable networker. Her daughter Francesca remembers the phone ringing constantly. It wasn’t just local politicians calling and coming by Geno’s. Francesca remembers, in the 70’s, a younger George Bush Sr., fresh out of the CIA, trying to jumpstart his political career with visits to the chowder shack.
“We’d close here at 5 o’clock, and we’d try to have supper, and the bell would ring and I’d say, ‘Aw mom it’s that guy again.’ " Francesca said. “And she’d say, ‘He may be president of the United States someday,’ and I said, ‘I seriously doubt it.’”
Francesca and her mother say they would never think to charge to host a campaign event. Nor do they ever wonder how much their signed letters from John F. Kennedy or Richard Nixon might fetch. Iconic campaign landmark or not – politics is part of who they are.
As 20 year old Emily Fernald puts it: “It’s the house rule: You can’t complain if you didn’t vote in the election.”
And if you spend every day at Geno’s, you probably won’t vote until you’ve eaten a bowl of chowder with every candidate. This year, that could be a lot of chowder.