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CJ's Great West Grill /VisitingNewEngland small business partnership - Local Small Business Stories

A Behind-The-Scenes Look at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.

This gem of a family-friendly restaurant takes on a entirely different approach than the typical American restaurant, courtesy of a talented woman in a pink chef's jacket

CJ's Great West Grill, Manchester, N.H.
CJ's Great West Grill.

Article by Eric Hurwitz, @newenglandinfo. Story created on 11/1/2019.

As the Steve Miller Band's spirited, celebratory "Living in the USA" plays in the background, customers at CJ's Great West Grill happily feast on America's diverse, regional cuisine without ever having to leave Manchester, N.H.

Whether New England, Southern, Midwest, Southwest or Californian, the cuisines resonate with authenticity and a loving approach to preparation, presentation and what the palate innately loves. It's like each meal is three-dimensional -- that is, enlivening the plate with colorful, aromatic and mouthwatering characteristics.

This wasn't supposed to happen, however, at a restaurant located on a busy commercial road filled with chain stores and restaurants. Fortunately, CJ's Great West Grill has broken that chain to give customers a roadmap to America's favorite roadside foods under one roof. No borders exist here to impede the types of down-home American fare that people love.

The look of the restaurant and atmosphere burst with personality as vibrant as the food. The outside features architecture like something out of a western town (and includes patio dining for the wearmer weather). Inside, the newly-extended Texas Room, as well as the Louisiana and Arizona rooms all exhibit decor and furnishings akin to those regions.

Dining room at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Dining area at CJ's Great West Grill.

The bar area emits a warm and cozy vibe where customers and staff seem to closely bond like family (and there are also enough large flat screen televisions to enjoy the game). The new wood floors, carpets, painted walls and refinished furniture throughout the restaurant reveals a place that clearly exhibits pride of ownership fully geared to the comfort of the customer.

Bar area at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.Bar at CJ's Great West Grill.

CJ's Great West Grill has clearly come a long way since its opening in 1994, originally named Cactus Jack's that had more of a Mexican theme. Here in the 21st-century, however, the
lunch and dinner menu
is broader and mass appeal far greater. It's truly an ideal spot for appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, tacos, barbecue, butcher-cut steaks, chicken, seafood (including fresh salmon), south-of-the-border cuisine, gluten-free items and desserts all brought to a high culinary level, courtesy of a truly gifted, passionate head chef dressed in a pink chef's jacket (more on that shortly). Additionally, the drinks list more than impresses and include wines from celebrated producers and smaller bouqitue wineries, as well as local brews and creative signature cocktails. 

Dining at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Dining room at CJ's.

The cowboy statues, rural signs, colorful vases, regional posters, hanging cowboy-style lighting, rustic fireplace, train mural, wooden benches and retro conversation-starter signs also lend a fun element to an already fun food and dining experience. There's a bit of a wild west theme here but it's ultimately family-friendly.

CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H. features a family-friendly dining experience.
Fun, family friendly atmosphere at CJ's.

CJ's Great West Grill is a place that people visit three or four times a week, or come to as a destination. But most importantly, there is an enthusiasm here that very few restaurants achieve. It's almost like the rock star version of a restaurant although a G -rated one. And the great thing is, CJ's is in this for the long run. As part of the highly successful and philanthropic Great NH Restaurants, Inc. that owns Copper Door (Bedford and Salem), T-Bones (Bedford, Derry, Hudson, Laconia), Cactus Jack's (Laconia) and T-Bones Meats, Sweets and Catering (Manchester), CJ's Great West Grill not only brings in the crowds but also possesses a group of caring owners that genuinely love people and the concept and value of owning small, local businesses. Regional furnishings at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Regional furnishings at CJ's Great West Grill.

Tom Boucher, the founder of CJ's Great West Grill and CEO of Great NH Restaurants, certainly leads by example. He started out waiting tables at T-Bones in Hudson in the late 1980s and worked his way up the career ladder, experiencing virtually every job in the restaurant business. Boucher loved the field so much, in fact, that he turned down a full scholarship to study chemistry at Villanova University grad school in Philadelphia, Penn. The real chemistry, it turned out, was with the restaurant industry. That intuition led to restaurant and company ownership and a wonderful commitment to philanthropy to those in need (more on that shortly, also). He shows deep respect and admiration for dedicated, hard-working employees and has a wonderful way of communicating with them as not only a restaurant owner but a great human being.

Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants
Tom Boucher, CEO of Great NH Restaurants and founder of CJ's Great West Grill.

"I ran a kitchen for 10 years, so I know what it's like to work every job and am sensitive to that," said Boucher. "I am glad I chose this career and would only change one thing if I had to do it all over again, I would have majored in business rather than chemistry. Otherwise, I'd do it all over again. I love what I am doing and so grateful for the people that surround me."

The Irresistible Cuisine at CJs

Some of the cuisine at CJ's Great West Grill looks wonderfully familiar, others either a twist on favorites or, at its most ambitious, a completely different take on comfort food. A prime example of a typically ordinary dish given an extreme food makeover: the Crispy Haddock Tacos. While a common fish taco can often taste like something below "C" level (sorry for the bad pun), the Crispy Haddock Tacos go beyond the sea with prime fried haddock, a hard and soft shell taco combination, crab dip, lettuce, pico de gallo, Colby & Jack cheeses, fries, coleslaw and tartar sauce. Although CJ's Great West Grill serves many addictive, to-die-for dishes, the Crispy Haddock Tacos are often considered the top dish here.

Crispy Haddock Tacos from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Crispy Haddock Tacos.

Many like to fill up on appetizers, and rightfully so. The fried pickles with a dill pickle, crunchy tempura batter, house seasoning and chipotle ranch dip are quite popular. The spinach artichoke dip avoids the typical runny versions as it is served at just above room temperature instead of hot. The proper temperature helps avoid any unappetizing, dreaded soupiness. Made from scratch, the spinach artichoke dip features plenty of Parmesan cheese, the right amount of mayo and sour cream, chopped spinach and full artichoke hearts and handmade fried red and white tortilla chips, perfectly seasoned. The accompanying Cajun garlic bread just makes a great dish even better.

Spinach artichoke dip from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Spinach artichoke dip.

Chicken Espinaca is another standout with fried chicken, Mexican rice, Espinaca cheese sauce, pico de gallo, black olive, scallion and crispy tortilla thins...

Chicken Espinaca from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H. Chicken Espinaca.

The Shrimp Stuffed Avocado wonderfully combines avocado, pan-seared jumbo shrimp, toasted corn, pico de gallo, lime remoulade, tortilla thins, cilantro and Mexican rice...

Shrimp stuffed avocado from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, NH.
Shrimp stuffed avocado.

Fried chicken never tasted this good at other places as the fried boneless chicken breast, mashed potato, asparagus and gravy come together for a crispy, moist and flavorful meal...

Mouthwatering fried chicken from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, NH
Fried chicken dinner from CJ's Great West Grill.

If having enough room for dessert (a challenge, given the huge portions), a must-try is the Funny Bone Cake. It's a variation of the store-bought Drake's Funny Bone -- only it's a zillion times better! The dense chocolate cake, peanut butter filling and chocolate Ganache topping surely would have a place on any of the major food television shows. Take notice, The Food Network!

Funny Bones Cake from CJ's Great West Grill on Manchester, N.H.
Funny Bones Cake.

So, Who is the Culinary Mastermind Behind CJ's Great West Grill?

Chef Nicole at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill.

Nicole Barreira, that's who.

Better known as Chef Nicole, Barreira, 35, works for Great NH Restaurants as director of marketing and menu development for CJ's Great West Grill and T-Bones. Primarily growing up in Hudson, Barreira found success through hard work in the field and a thirst and hunger for education. Barreira earned her associate's degree in culinary arts, a bachelor's degree in hospitality administration, a master's degree in organizational leadership, and a master's certificate in marketing, all from Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).

She is basically the face of CJ's (and T-BONES), wearing a pink chef's jacket and possessing a vibrant personality and relentless energy that lights up a room. She is kind by nature but firm and assertive in her vision to bring culinary excellence to CJ's Great West Grill.

"Whatever level of energy you devote to what you love is what you get back," said Barreira.

Chef Nicole works the kitchen at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Chef Nicole creates in the kitchen. Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill.

Barreira first got a taste of the hospitality industry as a teenager by attending the Alvirne Culinary Arts program in Hudson. The program prepares students for careers in the food service industry. At 14-years-old, she started working at the former Annie's V's restaurant in Hudson. While at SNHU, Barreira also gained diverse hospitality experience in food services at the Nashua Country Club and Southern New Hampshire Medical Center, both in Nashua, N.H.

In 2006 during her last year as an undergraduate, Barreira was tasked to do a research project and chose T-BONES because of its popular presence in the Manchester area.

"It wasn't sexy or fun as I wanted to work in Boston or Chicago," said Barreira. "But after a while, I said 'Wow! This is a tremendous place.' I thought, 'Why does this place have such longevity?' I found out that people working there raved about the place -- the benefits, being treated well, the commitment to food and service."

Barreira gained valuable front and back of the house experience at Great NH Restaurants but after two years of management responsibilities at the Laconia location, Barreira felt a need to get back to what she loved most.

"I had to get back to food," said Barreira. "My heart and soul is food -- seeing the different cultures, makingg the food. My heart was ticking. I loved the company but there wasn't an opportunity at that point and I needed a break. I decided to travel."

In 2008, Barreira journeyed to Bangkok, Thailand and stayed there for an extended time, enjoying the change of pace but also wondering what to do next.

"Tom (Boucher) asked me 'Are you coming back?'" said Barreira. "It was in the middle of the night because of the time difference. I told him, 'Tom, I don't know if I need something different.' He said, 'Nicole, we would love to put a face on our brand. We will train you on menu development."

Eventually, Chef Nicole was born -- managing at a corporate level and creating food for restaurant customers. She would soon appear on radio, television and in the newspapers. She is a local food celebrity but ultimately likes being part of something that is bigger than herself. Working at Great NH Restaurants allows her to personally grow while being part of a visionary restaurant business.

Nicole Barreira, head chef at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Chef Nicole.
Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill.

"For a while, people didn't know I was a real person!" said Barreira, of her newly-found public persona. "But I got to know the public and they got to know me. I became a member of the leadership team at Great New Hampshire Restaurants and part owner at CJ's. Quite a difference from not knowing what to do next while in Thailand!"

The Art and Science Behind CJ's Cuisine

Nachos from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, NH.
Nachos from CJ's.
Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill Facebook fan page.

Barreira's mom is of Sicilian descent and considered making food in the home as a symbol of happiness. Nicole is like that, too, creating meals at home for her husband Nathan Langford and their children Gabriella, Chloe and Axl. And thousands of people a week at CJ's Great West Grill.

"So many restaurants say they make food from scratch and all that stuff," said Barreira. "We actually do that here. If you could see the care, the production, the food quality, the ethics... it is just amazing. The menu is an experience you won't find anywhere else. The flavors, the colors. Our food is not made in the same old way. There are just so many elements that go into making food special. That's what we do here."

 Chicken and ribs from CJ's Great West Grill on Manchester, N.H.
Chicken and ribs from CJ's. Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill Facebook fan page.

Staying local to create American cuisine remains a constant priority. Donabedian Farms in Salem, N.H. partnered with Great NH Restaurants to build a greenhouse that grows local produce for CJ's Great West Grill and all restaurants within the company. Great NH Restaurants has its own commissary down the road that, amongst many other attributes, has its own butcher that grinds hamburgers and cuts steaks.

Guacamole bacon smash burger from CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Guacamole bacon smash burger features two 4 oz. burgers, black pepper mayo, Jack cheese, bacon, tomato, shredded lettuce, guacamole and fries.
Photo credit: CJ's Great West Grill Facebook fan page.

CJ's Great West Grill features a big menu. Some restaurant elites say that only a small menu can yield the highest quality offerings as, theoretically, the chef can work better focusing on a limited number of items. Barreira wholeheartedly disagrees.

"Our kitchen makes it a priority to do everything well!" said Barreira. 

Giving Back to the Community

CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H. gives back to the community.
Philanthropy is a priority at CJ's.

Since 1984, Great NH Restaurants, Inc has donated more than $1,250,000 in gift certificates to thousands of non-profits throughout New Hampshire. They created in 2014 to provide funding, food and volunteer services to meet the needs of New Hampshire-based non-profits benefiting families, the elderly, education and the disadvantaged, according to the Great NH Restaurants web site.

Great NH Restaurants donated in 2018...
$1,711, 541 in total promotional discounts
$237,784 raised to help those in need through
$117,945 in total gift card donations
$11,399 in military discounts

Additionally, Great NH Restaurants has instituted a Random Acts of Kindness initiative with, for starters, free desserts, appetizers, meals and other "surprises" at all locations. Their generosity to customers includes cancer survivors and children facing illness to those who have vital, noble roles in our society like the military and teachers.


Dining and bar area at CJ's Great West Grill in Manchester, N.H.
Erick Shea happily waits a table at CJ's.

In many ways, CJ's follows the path of a history of fun, kid-friendly restaurants that many of us could hardly wait to visit while on vacation in New Hampshire. Some of the great, most beloved family restaurants from the past that come to mind when visiting CJ's: Green Ridge Turkey Farm and Shakey's Pizza in Nashua, Longhorn BBQ in North Woodstock, Yoken's in Portsmouth and the Sunny Villa in Ossipee. CJ's falls into that legendary category.

CJ's Great West Grill offers a family-friendly setting in Manchester, N.H.
Family-fun setting at CJ's Great West Grill.

CJ's has a step up on the quality of the food, however. Chef Nicole's passion, talent and innovations would certainly have a place in the top echelon of Boston restaurants, if she chose to be there. Lucky for Manchester and visitors to the area, however, that she stayed in the Granite State to share her brilliant culinary skills and passion for cooking with the public.

"There is a process to creating food," said Barreira. "I dream it and then create it on a large scale."

CJs Great West Grill is located at 782 South Willow St., Manchester, NH. 03103. Tel. 603-627-8600.
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