How One Mighty Small Business Is Changing Life in Small-Town NH

How many small business owners can say half their community lined up outside to welcome them on their opening day? Elisabeth Branch can because that’s exactly what happened in the quiet town of Stoddard, New Hampshire, when she took over ownership of Mill Village Country Store.

The move to small business ownership was a scary one for Elisabeth. She made the decision during the pandemic, left her career path behind, and sold her home. “I felt like I was capable of more,” she says. During the transition, she spent months Airbnb hopping and crashing at her mom’s house.

With a strong background in management and operations, she always knew owning a business would be a good fit. What kind of business was the real question until she fell in love with Mill Village. “I walked into the store and it was just a little bit of everything,” she recalls.

A Community Hub

A close up image of a hand cutting a cheese pizza with a slicer.Since opening in March of 2021, Mill Village Country Store has become the place where emergency responders get late-night pizza during record snowstorms and where community members drop off homemade cinnamon buns and champagne for times of celebration.

In fact, the market has the only ATM or groceries for miles and draws patrons from all the nearby towns. “People might be coming to grab a sandwich, but they can also grab milk and butter,” Elisabeth explains.

Grocery items are key for locals and summertime tourists, but the impressive prepared food the store turns out is perhaps what it’s best-known for. And that’s by design. Though initially the cost felt risky, Elisabeth has leaned into premium ingredients, including a deli fully stocked with Boar’s Head products.

Ultimately, her thoughtful selections have made all the difference. Online, Mill Village boasts countless reviews like: “By far the best pizza and deli sandwiches I have had in New Hampshire” and “Best sandwiches! Best service! Excellent people! I simply love this store’s nice country feel.”

An Interesting Asset

A person in a black shirt holding a post office packageIn addition, the market remains a frequent stop for another interesting reason. “We also hold the contract for the town’s post office,” Elisabeth explains. Her sister, Annie, has taken the reins of that part of the business. And often, someone coming in to grab their package will also decide to order a pizza for dinner. “That’s huge. It helps a lot with the dynamics,” Elisabeth describes.

The market has all the hallmarks of a classic movie. But it is a small business with many moving pieces, and behind the scenes, life can be less idyllic. Like when Elisabeth found out the building she now owned was in dire need of repair.

“The post office side of the building is original 1800s, and it started deteriorating underneath,” she describes. The verdict was that the whole thing needed to be gutted and renovated within two weeks due to safety concerns. “I just was like: ‘I can’t do this by myself,’” Elisabeth remembers.

Finding Support…Fast

Fortunately, she’d heard about the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship from a staff member who visited the store, so she decided to reach out. “I was so welcomed,” she recalls with a smile. She sat down for a heart-to-heart with Sara Powell, Hannah Grimes’ Program Director, and told her everything. “She was just like: ‘We can help you,’” Elisabeth says.  

And Hannah Grimes did. With the team’s help, Elisabeth took advantage of a small business equipment grant through Cheshire County. She was given upwards of $20,000 for the desperately needed repairs, and then came more help. Local outfit, Taylor Renovations, “literally dropped everything” to get there fast and wrap up the construction in as little time as possible.

With that crisis behind her, Elisabeth and Hannah Grimes are now working together on the overlaps between her business and building ownership. They’re creating an asset plan and securing an energy audit to figure out how to best invest in the space and steward it into the future. 

Looking Ahead

Three women smiling in Mill village t-shirts.“I would love to see us be able to provide even more services to the town,” Elisabeth says. She imagines more grocery and food items so people don’t have to drive as far to get what they need, especially in challenging weather. “I mean, we got 42 inches of snow in one storm last year. That was life or death, and a lot of our population is elderly,” Elisabeth notes.

In the colder months, the store remains a lifeline for people in need of essentials, as well as connection. Elisabeth tries to use the off-season to expand as much as possible, like with the addition of all-new fried food items on the menu. Because as she puts it, “Everybody loves comfort food.”

The daily and seasonal decisions keep coming, and she says, “It’s been a wild ride and a really cool one.” Tomorrow, when a regular stops in for coffee and his wife calls the market to see if he’s there, Elisabeth will have a laugh and wait to see what small-town adventures await her next. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” she says.

Written by Caroline Tremblay.