The Greenhouse Cafe in Ocean City, Md.
Tell me about your business and how it all got started.
Well, it was kind of a life long dream and The Greenhouse Cafe came about in a weird way. I was basically working for someone that didn’t say ‘thank you,’ and I left. I wanted to be in an industry where you can make people happy. The food industry is great and I love to cook. Being able to make people happy – especially people that have food allergies. They come in and they’re like, “It’s been so long since I’ve had a grilled cheese that I’m not allergic to.” We tend to tailor our food to take care of the customer. It’s 100% about them. It’s not about us.
How long have you all been in business?
I opened in April 2013. We are growing every year. We started out as a deli and sandwich shop, we got a beer package store, and now we have a bar. This winter we are going to start having dinners twice a week.
What kind of beers do you carry?
We carry a lot of local beers on top. We have Burley Oak, Dogfish, and Fin City. People like craft beers. You can go anywhere and get a Miller Lite. You can come to our place and get a Miller Lite. But it’s interesting, and we do food pairings with the local beers.
I see on your Facebook you all post about tuna melts and chicken pot pie stew. Do you all have specials like that each day?
Yes, we have a pretty broad menu, and then each day, I make something different. Unfortunately, I don’t do a lot of it in the summer because of the volume. When there’s 40 people that come in, in an hour for lunch, any special that I make is going to be gone. People come in and they’re like “When are you going to have meatloaf?” And I’m like “October.”
Who does the cooking?
Me. All of it. The people that work for me can make breakfast and put sandwiches together. I have a salad dressing that we bottle and sell upon request and no one there knows how to make it. No one in my family knows how to make it.
Did you learn how to cook from someone?
I actually learned from my grandfather. By the time I was old enough to start cooking, my grandparents had retired and my grandfathers philosophy was that my grandmother took care of my Dad and his 5 brothers and sisters for so long, and it was his turn. We had a garden and the meats were fresh – a lot of it was venison and things like that. It wasn’t like ‘Let’s run to the market and get this’ and ‘Let’s run and pick up fast food’ – we made everything. When you’re out there picking the beans and they become your dinner, it just kind of stays true.
In society now, everything is so fast. You don’t have to be great at cooking. It helps, but it’s really a time for everyone to gather together in the kitchen and put down their smartphones and get away from their computers and video games, and cooking outside is even better. So many families are so separated now because sports activities and school, and this club and that club, that you don’t get to see each other. When you go to a party, where does everyone end up? In the kitchen. So, my grandfather taught me the values of doing it right.
What are your most popular menu items?
On the deli side, we have the standard sandwiches. We have a Greenhouse tuna sandwich that’s really good and an Italian cold cut. It’s just the way we put it together and its got our secret house dressing on it – which is probably the main reason it’s so good. I make a lot of salads. We have a kale quinoa salad with edamame and that’s a staple there. We have an everything salad with literally everything on it. We make a shrimp macaroni salad. That was mom mom’s recipe, and it’s made the same way. We have breakfast, lunch, light fare dinner, and we’ll make different desserts. I make a lot of chocolate and it’s vegan. The chocolate covered strawberries don’t stick around that long.
Healthy smoothies and juices are an iconic thing on your menu. Is that something that means a lot to you?
I juice. I find myself not eating, so if I’m not juicing, I don’t eat except for once a day and that’s usually at about 10 o’clock at night. So I try to have a couple juices during the day. I mean you can pack an entire salad in a 12 oz. juice. Juicing is really good for you and you can sneak things in there. Like if your kids don’t like spinach, you can put it in a smoothie. Fresh spinach does not have a taste – it’s not a strong flavor. The kids don’t know. Parents all the time whisper like, “Can you put some spinach in there?” If you’re going to do spinach, I recommend blueberries because you don’t see that it’s green.
I saw on your Facebook that you’re showing sports games on TV at the Greenhouse Cafe. Does that bring in a crowd?
We have a big TV and a little TV. I literally have 1,000 sq/ft of front-of-the-house and 1/3 of that is my kitchen. The bar is ‘Z’ shaped so people some in and they can sit, and even if they come in with a group, they can still see all their friends, instead of being in a straight line. We show the Orioles games and we will show the Ravens games. Another thing that we do which is really cool, in Ireland they have something called hurling, and of course rugby and futbol, which is soccer. We show all of those on the GAA network, so every Sunday morning it’s packed with Irish kids, because no one else shows it.
Do you think it’s word-of-mouth that gets people coming here?
That’s what it is. We tried radio, newspapers, and all sort of stuff – nothing. People come in and I ask “how’d you hear about us?” and they say “oh, my friend ate here the other day.”
I heard you feed the local fire dept. Tell me about that.
I do. A lot of the paramedics come over. The firemen are still kind of meat and potatoes but we will cater for their meetings and things like that. And the police dept. They both have been really supportive. We get a lot of cops, especially the bike cops.
Is that important to you? Helping out the community?
They have my back. They support me, I support them. They’re great people. I have made a lot of good friends. All cops, firemen, and city workers get a 10% discount.
Diakonia is a halfway house where there are folks there that can’t live on their own, it’s a battered women shelter, and people that can’t function on their own live there. We take food we don’t sell that day to them. We use a bread company and everyone always wants us to try their bread, so they bring us so much bread. So, I say ‘thanks’ and then it all goes in the car and it all goes over to Diakonia. Same things with meats and things like that. They are always trying to get us to change lunch meat. So they’ll bring me a turkey breast. I’m like ‘thanks’ and we slice the whole thing up, package it, and take it to Diakonia.
For having the volume that we do, we have three trash cans in the back and we very seldom have to empty them during the day because nothing gets thrown out. If that makes sense. We don’t use cans or boxes – everything is fresh. So it’s not like we made mashed potatoes and all these boxes go in the trash. It’s potato peelings. It’s nice because we’re not wasting and we can help out when we do.
What makes the Greenhouse Cafe different from other places to eat in Ocean City?
It’s just a really comfortable place. There’s no dress code, it’s not stuffy, it’s really comfortable. There’s great music playing and it’s almost like sitting at home. We have a lot of board games like backgammon, chess, checkers. We have trivia cards too, which are hysterical. Like the other day these three ladies came in. It was like two friends and their Mom. The Mom is in like her mid to late 70’s and the two ladies are probably late 40’s. They’re having a beer and they’re just sitting there and they’re on their phones, and the mom is just sitting. So, I just walk by and take a box of trivia cards and sit them on the table. I don’t say a word. I just walk away. They sat there for two hours just roaring with laughter. We encourage that everybody kind of sit together and talk. The way the tables are laid out, intentionally there are tables for three, so you either bum a chair, or sit with somebody. And it works. There’s not a single price on anything. You are forced to talk to my staff.
We don’t want you to feel like ‘Oh, just come in and sit down, eat, and get out.’ We’re not about that at all. We have books and people will come in and pick up a book and start reading it, and then they come back the next day and pick up where they left off.
We debated expanding last year. My husband and I talked about it and we were going to take the other side and put a bar in. I told him that I wasn’t comfortable with that because then it’s divided. So, we just kind of worked the bar in. It’s a nice fun atmosphere. My staff is ridiculous. We sing. Half my staff are kids my daughter has grown up with, so I’ve known them since they were kids, and they all call me Mom. I don’t wear an apron when I’m there because I have a level of busy that I get to before I actually put on an apron because then it just becomes my towel. It was the air show. It was like the calm before the storm. I walk over to the hook and I pull off an apron and I put it on, and I said it’s on. We put out 260 breakfasts in 90 minutes. So they know when I put my apron on, it’s going to be a busy day.
Our kitchen is open and you can see everything that we do. There are no secrets. You are never going to see me pulling pork chops out of the freezer and nuking them. The idea with dinner is, I will make four things, a variety – a fish, pasta, vegan/vegetarian dish, cater to the food allergy dish – and I only make like 10 plates of each. You miss it, sucks to be you. You can call. You are not really making a reservation for a time. You are reserving your food. If I make chicken and dumplings, I know not to post it until it’s made. I can make a post on Facebook and send it out and the phone starts ringing. I don’t make a lot so when it’s gone, it’s gone. So, it creates that urgency of when you see it, jump on it.
It sounds like you like what you do.
I do. This is year three. Year one – bad. Nobody knew I was there and everything in there I bought. I had a ton of money invested. The second year, it picked up and this year we’re killin’ it. I always tell people, “No pancakes, but we have everything else.” No pancakes, french fries, and cheese steaks because you can get that anywhere. We want to be different.
Nancy has been bringing some of The Greenhouse Cafe’s favorite dishes to the DelmarvaLife kitchen. Check out some of the recipes: