LACONIA — Michelle Watson grew up in southeastern Massachusetts, within the shadow of the New England Patriots’ former Foxboro Stadium, and studied graphic arts at UMass-Dartmouth. When she graduated, she felt the need to strike out on her own.
“I wanted a little adventure, I wanted to do something on my own. I have amazing parents, but I wanted to be ‘Michelle.’ I wanted to find myself – I definitely did,” she said.
Watson decided to start her adult life in the Lakes Region, where she and her family had been coming for vacations since she was a child and where she had already built a few social connections. Within a couple of years, she found herself owner of The Looney Bin, a hole-in-the-wall bar that she has turned into a popular local hangout.
As soon as she was legally old enough, Watson started working in the restaurant industry, first to earn spending money, then to help pay for college. When she moved to the Lakes Region, she got a job at the now-closed Broken Antler, near the intersection of Route 3 and Watson Road. About the same time, Tim and Melissa Patrick had opened The Looney Bin less than a half-mile away.
The Looney Bin opened in 2005 as a seasonal watering hole catering to bikers. After their first season, the Patricks found out that they were expecting a baby, and they didn’t want to raise a child in a biker bar. Watson had become friendly with them, and soon a deal was hatched.
“It was the perfect opportunity to work hard for myself instead of someone else,” she said. She had to go back to her parents for financing – no banker in their right mind would give a 26-year-old a loan to buy a bar, she said – and she hasn’t looked back since. She purchased the business in February of 2006 and has since put her own touches on the business.
“We’ve changed a lot,” she said. “With the previous owners, it was a hardcore biker bar.” She has kept the business’s name, and its provocative shot menu – “How about a round of Sex in the Parking Lot, bartender” – but has kept the doors open all year and sought to expand the range of people who would feel welcome inside. “I wanted it to be more of a year-round, local establishment,” she said. And she has succeeded.
“People driving by think we’re just a biker bar. We’re so filled with people from all walks of life here.” What’s clear to people who have stepped inside – or even just driven by – is that The Looney Bin is small. The building measures 36 feet by 36 feet, which includes the bar, tables, bathrooms and kitchen, and Watson said that’s an advantage.
She has only 24 seats, and anyone can hear every conversation happening anywhere in the bar. It has a way of breaking down social barriers – some of those shots might help that along – so strangers at The Looney Bin quickly become acquainted. “Everyone here becomes friendly, I think it’s because we’re so small.”
There’s more to her success beyond size, though. Watson keeps the place fastidiously clean, is proud that The Looney Bin is a place where women can come by themselves and feel comfortable, and she has brought the food up to a level where she would feel proud serving it at her home.
In fact, some of it is food that was served at home when she was growing up.
“I grew up in a family that loves to cook,” she said, and she has borrowed secret family recipes. Her father’s buffalo sauce gilds her best-selling chicken wings, and her mother came up with the recipe for her similarly popular meatballs.
“We started making food the way we wanted to eat it,” she said. That means homemade sauces, and food cooked fresh to order. “We put that extra little bit in it. It’s amazing, the difference,” she said. “It takes a little longer for things to come out, but it’s worth it.”
This year, Watson has found herself spending more time in the kitchen, as it’s been hard for her to find enough staff. She would prefer to be out in the bar, getting to know her regulars a little better.
But there’s one regular that she already knows very well. Shortly after moving to the Lakes Region, she started a romantic relationship with Todd Watson, a mechanic. They will celebrate their fifth anniversary in March.
Michelle and Todd live in New Hampton, “in the woods,” she said. “It’s a nice contrast to the craziness here.” When Michelle isn’t at The Looney Bin or at home in New Hampton, it’s a good bet that she and Todd are in Key West, where they’ve established a home-away-from-home, complete with a whole set of friends who have never been to New Hampshire.
Watson has used her position as a business owner to support the local community, and in ways that are especially dear to her. When she was growing up, many of her family members were emergency responders, so she hosts a pig roast each year to support the Laconia Fire Department. She was also involved in an abusive relationship when she was younger, and so she hosts a second pig roast to benefit New Beginnings, a domestic violence shelter. She hasn’t kept track of how much she has raised, but her most recent event generated more than $4,000.
“It’s amazing to have something that’s yours, but also to be able to give back to something you’re passionate about,” she said. Owning the bar hasn’t been easy – it was more than a decade before she was able to guarantee herself at least one day off each week – but she doesn’t regret her decision to trade Foxboro for The Looney Bin.
“I think it was the best decision I ever made. I wish I hadn’t gone into it so naive, but I’m glad I did, because I don’t know if I would have done it if I knew then what I know now… I wouldn’t change it for the world, not even on the hard days.”