Standing proudly on Market Street in the small town of Willards sits a quaint little building that one would never guess maintains a history dating back to the late 1800s. What was once a train station and later a post office, sat empty for nearly 15 year until two local women with a shared vision to transform the space into their dream coffeehouse and eatery came along. After several months of renovations and a lot of elbow grease, The Iron Horse Coffee House & Eatery was born. The small space is outfitted with local charm (including a smattering of local artwork) and overflowing with the sweet smells of freshly brewed coffee. Add to that delicious mix the steady flow of house made breakfast and lunch dishes parading from the kitchen and you’ve got the quintessential small town eatery and coffee shop. After ordering a flat white and grabbing a spot at one of the high-top tables, we were ready to find out more about how The Iron Horse – which opened just last Friday – came to be.
As Ocean City locals, co-owners Molly and Vanessa Founds know a thing or two about restaurant and hospitality life, which is where their dreams of opening their own breakfast and lunch spot came to fruition. The duo spent years scouring the area for the perfect place, but it wasn’t until they stumbled upon the empty building on the corner of Main and Market Street in Willards that they struck gold. “We didn’t want to settle on anything” said Vanessa. “This just felt like home when we found it.” ‘Home’ was in fact a building that had essentially been vacant since 2001. Prior to that the building served as a video store, post office, and train station. As far as the Founds’ can tell, the building’s origins lie somewhere between 1890 and 1910. Once Vanessa and Molly acquired the building and started in on the extensive renovations, local buzz and excitement followed suit. “It was lifeless so to speak, so people were really excited when they saw us moving in,” said Vanessa. Work included adding a deck onto the building for outside seating and completely renovating the interior space to house a kitchen and coffee bar. “There was nothing here,” remembers Molly. “We added the deck, a parking lot and landscaping, and painted every inch.” “We definitely put a lot of thought and blood, sweat and tears into it,” added Vanessa. Next came the hard part…picking a name. The idea for ‘The Iron Horse’ came about while Molly was doing a little research on old train stations of the early 1900s. Since trains were referred to as ‘iron horses,’ The Iron Horse seemed kismet.
The hard work paid off and the Founds opened up shop this past Friday…on the eve of a massive winter storm. Nonetheless, the weekend was a wild success, with locals turning out to see the new culinary addition to the town. “Friday was definitely a big success. We actually had a lot of people telling us they wanted to be the first customer,” said Vanessa, adding that a few families came for breakfast, only to return for lunch and to grab a few items to take home for dinner. Currently, The Iron Horse is open Monday through Friday, 7am until 4pm, and Saturdays from 9am until 2pm. Breakfast and lunch are served along with your typical lineup of coffee drinks…lattes, espresso, Americano, coffee, etc…The full service espresso bar includes beans from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters – a family-owned and operated business based out of Virginia – as well as Eastern Shore Coffee & Water. Loyalty cards are available, so every 10th coffee is free.
For food, the lineup is a fresh mix of breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads, soups, baked goods, and daily specials. Everything is made fresh, on-site, with the exception of the sandwich breads, which include the classic Amoroso’s Philly rolls and brioche from local bakery, Crack of Dawn. Manning the kitchen is Vanessa’s brother Andrew – “he’s amazing,” says Vanessa. “He’s able to create what we’ve been thinking and planning for awhile now.” What’s popular so far? The house sandwich – aptly dubbed The Iron Horse – has been a clear front-runner so far. Comprised of house-roasted beef, grilled onions, peppers, and melted provolone, all piled high atop an Amoroso roll, the sandwich is a locals favorite. “We’re becoming known for our carnitas tacos too,” said Molly. The tacos arrive in an order of three, with slow roasted pork, chopped cabbage, radish, pico de gallo, and a spicy lime sauce, and paired with rice and beans. A fast favorite is also The Mona Lisa – curried chicken salad with craisins served on a croissant. Veggie options abound as well, including the Farmer John (think a Powerhouse sandwich) and the Italian Vegetable Hoagie. There are several salads to choose from, as well as a daily rotation of soups. For breakfast, there are bagels, breakfast sandwiches (scrapple too of course), jumbo cake muffins, fruit & granola parfaits, and more. “We will also be offering a Lunch Box special for lunch that will change daily,” added Vanessa. Of course there’s plenty for the kids, including a kids menu and snacks for after school. “We definitely want kids to feel welcome here too,” said Vanessa.
The local crowd will be a big draw for The Iron Horse, but the Founds expect a strong following of customers from outside of Willards as well. “We’re aiming for destination dining,” said Vanessa, adding that many of their customers so far have come from Ocean City, Berlin, and Salisbury. They expect customers to stop off on their way to or from the beach to grab a good cup of coffee or a delicious breakfast and/or lunch. Once the warm weather kicks in, customers will also have more space to dine thanks to the addition of the deck and the outside seating. For now, Molly and Vanessa encourage customers to embrace the small, intimate space and ‘cozy up’ with friends and neighbors while enjoying the casual but comfy atmosphere.
And last and certainly not least, retail options. Beans from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters, The Iron Horse apparel, and artwork by local artist Patti Backer and local photographer Tyler Layton are currently available. For more on The Iron Horse, find them on Facebook (The Iron Horse), Instagram (iron_horse_willards) and on their website.