One of the coveted badges of belonging in American culture is the idea of a local bar where everyone knows your name. For Elizabeth "Beth" Wood, this place has been the 21 Bar and Grill. Wood worked there as a manager for 11 years before purchasing it in 2020. Now she and her husband, Matt Wood, work hard to extend this sense of belonging to their patrons through their hospitality and to the Keene community at large through their service-oriented business practices.
Wood credits her return year after year to the culture at 21.
"I went to work not feeling like you are going to work," says Wood.
She works hard to extend this same feeling to her staff, knowing that they stay at places where they feel appreciated.
"You need the heart, the people who work there," explains Wood.
In our nostalgia for the intimacy for the places "that knew our name," it is easy to forget that this same quality of belonging can be used to make "others" feel unwelcome. This kind of culture is ultimately the opposite of community building and bad for the bottom line. However, the culture at 21 strikes a unique balance of welcoming a devout crew of regulars and making space for future regulars.
When asked about how the staff makes new patrons feel at home, Woods explained that it is not top-down protocols, but rather it is all heart forward, the result of many small actions adding up to an overall feeling.
"The staff is great," says Woods. "They will pay attention to you." It is this simple act of attention that can make all the difference.
Some places are our home by circumstance, and others by choice. At age 18, Beth Wood loved Keene so much that she decided to stay when her mother, father, and two sisters pulled up roots to move to Covington, South Carolina. She studied at Keene State College and received a BA in Psychology. She worked in restaurants throughout college and beyond, including The Pub, Longhorn, Fireworks, and Applebee's.
"I just loved to work in my 20s," says Wood. "I was always picking up more work."
It was at the front of the house at Applebee's where she met her husband and business partner, Matt Wood. There they learned the delicate balance of work-life and romantic life and how to marry the two.
"We have our work-relationship and then our relationship-relationship," notes Wood.
This has been increasingly vital as they add more to their already full plate of collaboration, including their two young children.
The complications of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that the sale of 21 Bar and Grill happened earlier than Beth had anticipated and coincided with the other most important event of her life at the time, the birth of her son, Elliot. Matt Wood had to leave the hospital temporarily to sign the papers for the business.
The business took the summer to get back up and running again and reopened in August 2020. It has been going strong ever since. Since the sale of the restaurant happened a couple of months into the pandemic, their company's LLC was created a couple of days past the deadline to apply for PPE and Restaurant Fund Grants. Beth Woods gives "all the credit" for the restaurant's ability to stay afloat to "the customers."
The customers return for the good New England local beer on draft from Elm City Brewing Company, Branch and Blade Brewing Company, and the Brewers of Nye Hill Farm. Others return for the extensive list of playfully designed cocktails, including Kentucky Redhead with bourbon, ginger liqueur and sweet vermouth, or Silver Fox named for the healthy dose of silver tequila balanced with elderflower liqueur, grapefruit juice and lime.
The regulars also return for favorites from the menu, such as bacon-wrapped chicken served with honey mustard and Bavarian-style giant pretzels with beer cheese. On nights when there's no need to be home for dinner, they like tucking into a burger with all the fixings with a choice of beef, Beyond Burger (vegetarian) or a chicken patty. The grill, operated by head chef Niko Milano, also serves lighter fare, including rice bowls, sandwiches and salads. The brunch regulars also can't let too many weeks pass without indulging in eggs Florentine or nachos sunrise, accompanied by a peach Bellini or Irish coffee.
Regulars and new customers alike are all cooperators in Beth Wood's actions to extend hospitality beyond the bar's doors.
"I've realized that over the last few years, being more involved with local nonprofits, that owning my own establishment has allowed me to take advantage of my time to do volunteer work and to use my establishment to leverage volunteer work," says Wood.
Examples of this abound. Every month there is a new cocktail called "The Philanthropist," for which $1 goes to a local organization. Benefactors have included Monadnock United Way, Joy's Network, and Cedarcrest for Children. On Plaid Friday, an annual Monadnock Region event that encourages supporting community businesses, the Woods chose to pay this extra patronage forwards, donating 20% of their sales that day to the United Way.
Beth Wood is a founding member of the Greater Keene Rotaract Club and works with proceeds from 21 Bar and Grill to support the "Operation Elf" program where families in need get to "shop" for the holidays. Specials like the Bar's 21 days of Christmas or traditions like the bar's ugly sweater night all support organizations within the community.
Working in hospitality means holding many things at once, balancing the demands of the business and the customer, the supplier and the staff. Both Beth and Matt like having their hands full. For now, owning a bar in a pandemic is proving slightly easier than learning the new routines of their 19-month-old son and his 4-month-old sister. They even have their eyes and hearts open for their next venture. Beth Wood is open to buying another business or starting from scratch.
"In these times, you have to be flexible. Every week there is some kind of new rule," says Wood.
The rule that 21 has followed to its success is the Golden Rule, welcoming regulars and new customers alike. At a time when the pandemic has left many of us unmoored from our community, Matt and Beth Wood have used their barstools to dig in.
21 Bar and Grill
21 Roxbury Street
Keene, NH 03431