Sometimes the best-laid plans unfold when you go with your gut. At least, that’s how things have gone for Elle Nelson.
The Knoxville native pursued a degree in secondary education at the University of Tennessee, partly out of interest, but also because she didn’t have a strong calling for anything else.
“I did my freshman year at Lipscomb in Nashville but transferred to UT my sophomore year. I loved working with people and students, so I figured I was naturally a coach in terms of persona. It made sense since I didn’t have anything else I was gung-ho about,” says Elle. “I was close with people on staff and was even a spokesperson for the program, and then I quit when I finished my undergraduate. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend the money on a master’s. I wasn’t sure if I was set up to do it for 40 years. I wasn’t ready to make that decision. I know myself.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in December 2016, Elle worked as a substitute teacher for more than a year and realized she wasn’t meant to be in a traditional classroom. So, she started waiting tables and then worked as a bartender, all the while taking notes and learning on the job.
“I needed a job, and I’d joked a lot throughout college that I wanted to see how much money I could make in tips, so I started in the service industry. I didn’t expect it to be a long-time commitment,” she says. “The question I got asked the most was, ‘Are you in school?’ It was always about what I was doing next. Those are the stereotypes people operate with, but I was making significantly better money serving than I would make teaching. I was more financially stable bartending.”
She enjoyed working in the service industry, particularly from behind the bar – the people you meet, the stories they tell, the energy in the room. By 2021, Elle saw the direction her life could go, so she started scoping the scene for a place she could own, either outright or in a partnership. Devoted to research, Elle worked at as many bars as possible – a bourbon bar, a tequila bar – studying cocktail construction and learning about different types of beer. This was, in essence, a degree of her own making. She loves, as she puts it, being paid to research.
A door opened for Elle when she started tending bar at Central Depot in December 2021. She loved the location and saw the potential, and after learning that the owner was looking to sell the bar, or entertain a partnership, all signs pointed in one direction.
“Everything was confirmed for me. I knew the location could do more. I was trying to get to know the regulars and build those relationships since those people are the lifeblood of a neighborhood bar,” says Elle. “I started talking with the owner and was upfront with him from the start. He knew I was interested.”
Though he and Elle never reached agreeable terms for a partnership, she continued bartending and doing her own research. In June 2022, she also accepted a full-time position as a project manager for a government contract company, all while continuing to scope the Knoxville scene looking for a location for her own bar.
Then word came that Central Depot was closing in October, so Elle jumped at the chance to buy the place she’d wanted for months. She registered the business on October 21, 2022, and started renovations the first weekend in November. Since she was still working a full-time job, it was an all-hands moment with friends and family helping Elle turn Central Depot into Monkey’s Bar.
“My open date was as soon as possible,” says Elle. “We opened December 23 with a beer license, and then got our liquor license the day before New Year’s Eve. We had 300 people in and out on New Year’s Eve. It was a whirlwind.”
In less than a year, Monkey’s Bar has become a true neighborhood bar, a place where locals go at the end of the day or to celebrate life events with friends. In addition to its extensive cocktail, beer, and wine list, it also boasts a hefty mocktail menu.
“I wanted to create a space that’s welcoming to everybody. Going out for a drink is a social activity, but not everyone will want booze. It might be that they don’t drink alcohol at all, or someone is pregnant, or maybe someone is just drinking less,” says Elle. “There’s a trend towards sobriety right now, so I wanted to be in tune with it. Natasha (Orsi) is my bar manager and Mike Cooke is our beer manager, but my other full-time bartender, Karlee (Mayers), is sober and helped make our mocktail menu.”
Of course, this story isn’t complete without a nod toward the bar’s namesake. Monkey, Elle’s golden retriever, is the company mascot and the “most impulsive purchase” she’s ever made.
“One of my good friends went up to a breeder in Kentucky to get her dog and was told that two people backed out of getting a puppy. So, they had six-week-old puppies, and she was really pushing it, and I was thinking, I work at three different bars, work weird hours, and live in a 500-square-foot apartment,” says Elle. “My agreement with my friends was that they had to help take care of Monkey while I’m working. When I worked at Central Depot, I’d bring him to work with me. I’d said I’d call my place Monkey’s Bar originally as a joke, but it was just funny enough.”
Monkey was adopted on January 21, 2022, exactly ten months before she would register his name as a business, a name she pulled from an episode of Gossip Girl.
“One of the ways we’ve expanded is to host small events and parties. We have the space for it and love to do it,” she says. “I try to work on my business and not in it, so I am not there that often. I bring Monkey with me whenever I go. When we park, he bolts towards the door. He gets a round of applause when he enters. He wants all the pets.”
Read the full cocktail and mocktail menus at MonkeysBarKnox.com
"When I worked at Central Depot, I’d bring him to work with me. I’d said I’d call my place Monkey’s Bar originally as a joke, but it was just funny enough."