Woods Hill Table Makes Good on the Farm-to-Table Promise
Kristin Canty's Concord, Massachusetts, restaurant takes the popular narrative to new heights. It just took 250 acres of scenic farmland—and plenty of passion—to get it done.
Kristin Canty planned to open a small diner in her hometown of Concord, Massachusetts, one of those New England towns where the farms historically outnumber the restaurants. Local sourcing was going to be her gospel and she wanted like-minded eaters to finally discover a place they could dine without guilt. Problem was, when it concerns the farm-to-table narrative, nothing is ever simple or constrained in Canty’s world. Fast forward a little more than a year later and the 50-year-old restaurateur has a lodge, fine-dining eatery, and more than 250 acres of farmland in scenic Bath, New Hampshire, at her disposal.
“It all just kind of spilled off into what it is today,” she says.
In 2011, Canty released a documentary titled “Farmageddon: The Unseen War on American Family Farms,” which explored how agents of government bureaucracies—often through violent means—are preventing family farms from providing food to their local communities. This silver screen production was a passion project for Canty, a mother of four who says raw milk cured her son, Charlie, of debilitating allergies when he was 3 years old. “He was allergic to the world. Doctors called him bubble boy,” Canty says. “It was grass. Every pollen. Bees. Every animal. Dust. And I had to follow him around with an EpiPen and an asthma inhaler.”
Canty’s connection with food dives, understandably, much deeper than most. And when it came time to culminate those sentiments with a restaurant of her own, thinking small was simply not a realistic goal. The convincing moment arrived when Canty started to sort through logistics. The financial strain of serving grass-fed beef on this scale was going to be far too taxing. A farmer offered some financial advice. “He said in order to get enough meat raised the way that you want it at less than restaurant prices, the only way to do it was to have your own farm,” Canty recalls.
In 2013, she purchased the Farm at Woods Hill, taking ownership of a property with ties dating to 1794. Naturally, her restaurant, which would now serve as an extension of the land, was named Woods Hill Table, and opened in March of last year. There’s also a lodge on the farm where guests can wind down and explore the grounds.
While there have been plenty of surprises, one fact has unfolded just as she planned: The restaurant has been extremely, almost uncontrollably, popular. Canty bartended and worked as a server in previous jobs, but had never run a restaurant.
“It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” she says. “I got into this to support farms and support our community eating from those farms and eating healthy food. And the demand is extremely high, which I hoped for and is great. But I’ve ended up doing a lot more customer service. It’s all about customer service.”
Canty will head to the restaurant every day between 10 a.m. and noon, working until 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. Every other Sunday and Monday, she will also head to the farm.
“I just put out fires all day,” she laughs.
“It was busy from the get-go, because our town really needed a good restaurant,” she continues. “And our restaurant is very comfortable and obviously serves delicious, healthy food. But it’s still incredibly busy. It grows exponentially through word of mouth. I just started marketing a few months ago. I really did that so we could get staff—so staff could see what we’re doing. We’re always short staffed and short labored. But customers have not been a problem.”
The 153-seat restaurant will do 240 covers on busy nights, averaging about 180 typically. The check average is around $55 per person. Canty says they could serve even more people if they changed models, but the restaurant purposefully moves at a very deliberate pace.
Everything is scratch made and the kitchen doesn’t cut corners. When a table is reserved by a guest, Canty will set aside two and half to three hours for table turns.
“It gets people a little upset sometimes when they want a reservation and know that we do that,” she says.
This is a detail, however, that Canty won’t compromise. Executive Chef Charlie Foster, who clocked time at Daniel Boulud’s DBGB in the Bowery, Oringer in Boston, and has traveled throughout Europe, prepares food that takes time and careful preparation. Meals begin with gluten-free crackers and fermented miso hummus dip. The restaurant uses beef tallow, which has high levels of vitamin D and a raised smoke point, to fry their food.
The ingredients, uniformly, are thoughtfully sourced. Much of the product comes from the farm, where Canty says they have 37 head of cattle, 83 pigs, four goats, more than 300 laying hens, 12 ducks, 22 lamb, and some 3,000-plus broiler chickens scattered throughout the year. They also keep at least four bee hives and make 200 mushroom logs per year, as well as grow “prolific” blueberries, herbs, pumpkins, squash, and other rotating, in-season produce. What can’t be found in-house is purchased from local farmers. Figuring out exactly what the restaurant needs and how much it can sell, has been a learning point, she admits. “Everything is hard to perfect as far as supply and demand goes. We ran out of chicken this year,” Canty explains.
Other than eggs, the farm is producing just enough to supply the restaurant and the guests who stay at the lodge.
In today’s restaurant landscape, where many operators tout “local” strictly as an advertising vehicle, Canty says the restaurant’s grass-roots commitment goes all the way through. They don’t push the story on the menu or via wait staff, but the speed of service and prices speak for themselves. This has either thrilled or repelled clientele.
“We lose customers every night who don’t understand and don’t value what we do at the restaurant,” she says. “I’m not trying to sound uppity but it’s very complicated. We make every single sauce from scratch—every single sauce, every day for over 200 people that we serve a night. All of our pasta is from scratch. Our bread is from scratch. Our desserts our from scratch. No ingredients, except for maybe ketchup and mustard, is boxed.”
That strategy has resulted in a very strong base. “We retain the customers who really value and understand what we’re doing,” Canty notes. “A lot of them will say it’s the only place that they will eat. So we have an incredible amount of regulars now.
“Customers do not come to us who want fast food,” she adds. “There are a lot of those still. We see one or two people a night who are angry about the prices and the slowness of the service. But for the most part, the demand for this food is overwhelming.”
And a lot of that boils down to presentation. “I want you to just come in and say, ‘Oh this is a great burger and it tastes good, and not have it pushed in your face. Saying grass-fed and organic doesn’t help if you don’t care. I just want you to go in and enjoy your experience eating a good meal.”
On the same token, Canty and Chef Foster have crafted a menu to satisfy a variety of audiences. There are items like the WHT Burger with American Gruyere, arugula, tomato preserves, and tallow fries, as well as Woods Hill Farm Tamworth Pork Loin with sherry glazed eggplant, chickpea miso sabayon, couscous, and celtuce.
“I want to be that place you go with your family. Where you can go for a quick bowl of organic pasta and a glass of wine and not break the bank, and also that place where you can just spend hours and have an extremely fine-dining experience and blow it out,” she says.
Right now, as demanding as it is, Canty has enjoyed multitasking, noting that the structure has allowed her to dictate the experience on her own terms. “Being with the animals and being on the land is more relaxing for me. But I have equal passion for both, because it’s all the same. The restaurant supports the farm and the farm supports the restaurant. It’s the perfect setup.”