It all started with a milkshake. Helen Marler, owner and operator of the Whistle Stop Cafe in downtown Lincoln, talks about her first visit to the cafe when it was known as “The Morning Glory.”
She said, “When we were new in Lincoln, the first place my friend took me was here. She told me I had to try this milkshake that was out of this world. It was called the ‘McBean Milkshake,’ which we still have today.”
Marler’s family moved to Lincoln in 1996 when her father was transferred to the Sierra Pacific mill. Back then she was known as Helen Cushman and she returned to the cafe often for the McBean Milkshake. She began working at the cafe when a new owner had taken over and needed help. Helen bought the cafe business from that owner almost three years ago in July, 2011. Her grandfather loaned her start-up money when she began and she paid back the loan after one year of operation.
Marler made the shop her own. “Even though it was called ‘Brickhouse’ when I bought it, I changed the name to ‘Whistle Stop Cafe’ about a year and a half ago,” she said. The new name was suggested by her father, inspired by the name of the small-town cafe in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes.” It also reflects the railroad theme of Lincoln’s origins. She added, “The Brickhouse was a coffee and a sandwich shop. I made this into a bakery. Everything is made from scratch and home made from family recipes.”
Marler sits back in one of the upholstered chairs near the front window of her Whistle Stop Cafe. Many of the inside tables are occupied with customers eating lunch. Several clocks adorn the walls and shelves of the cafe’s interior. A number of toy and model trains also add to the decor.
She smiles easily and speaks cheerfully about her busy life.
Marler and her husband, Jason, have been married 12 years and have three children, ages eleven, eight and four. She said that she and Jason have been together 16 years and she describes him as her “rock” of support that keeps her going.
In addition to running the cafe with the help of three employees, she has also branched out into catering. She caters for weddings, bridal and baby showers, anniversaries and birthday parties. “That’s what is keeping me afloat right now, is the catering,” she said. “We recently did a tea party in here for a bunch of little girls. That was fun, we made them individual cakes to take home.”
She recently catered a barbeque dinner for 325 people for the Ride to Walk . Whistle Stop Cafe’s large barbeque grill is modeled after a train engine and she and her staff prepared the food on site.
Soon she will be providing all the food for Origin Coffee in Rocklin. “They want us to start providing all their baked goods. They will be getting a display case and we’ll also be doing all of their soups, sandwiches and salads,” said Marler. Origin Coffee shop is a non-profit operation that provides support to stop human trafficking.
Marler said the new lines of business are important. “With this small town you have to have a lot of support from the local residents and without that then we’re going to have to start branching outward to keep the doors open,” she said.
Her cafe has struggled after the opening of the Highway 65 bypass. She said, “At first I thought it was going to be something positive, because we were getting a lot of new people down here. I think they were just checking things out because it died down real quick after the bypass opened.” Marler said her revenues dropped significantly after the bypass opened.
Some of the downtown events help her get the word out about her business. Since the Whistle Stop Cafe also serves ice cream, hot fudge sundaes and banana splits, she keeps the cafe open during the summer farmers markets. “During events like that, we stay open until 8 or 9 o’clock to get the extra people to see what we offer and maybe they’ll come back later,” she said.
Marler sets up a booth at the farmers market in Lincoln Hills on Wednesday mornings, also to encourage new customers to check out the downtown area. She said, “I’m hoping with the catering and farmers markets, we’ll keep putting the word out there that we’re down here and it will bring more people downtown. I do see it growing.”
“We’ve lost quite a few businesses in the downtown area,” she said. She named a dozen small businesses within a few blocks that have closed in the last year, sadly listing them as though they were lost friendships. Her optimism kicks in quickly as she also identifies new businesses coming in: a jewelry store, a fresh farm food store, and an antique/rustic home goods shop.
Most of her customers are also her neighbors. “We see a lot of the downtown business people. Our local businesses support us a lot,” she said. “We’ve been doing really well with Taco Tuesdays and our tri-tip sandwiches; we’ve been doing tri-tip seven days a week. We are busier at lunch time and in the afternoon for ice cream than we are for morning coffee.” Her coffee is organic, locally roasted (in Chico), and the prices are competitive with other coffee shops.
Marler’s work doesn’t stop with food. She also operates a house-cleaning business called “Sparkling Clean House Cleaning.” She cleans houses on Mondays and Thursdays in Sacramento, Citrus Heights, Lincoln, Marysville, Yuba City, Plumas Lake and Live Oak.
She is also the President of the Parents/Teachers Association at her oldest son’s middle school.
Helen Marler pushes forward. She said she is determined to make the Whistle Stop Cafe a success. She said, “I don’t like failure and for me, that’s huge. When I commit to something, I’m all in.”
She is considering adding fresh baked breads, a frequent request of her customers.
Another frequent request: that McBean Milkshake.
Whistle Stop Cafe is located at 680 5th Street, Lincoln CA (Google map)
Hours of operation are Sunday – Monday from 7AM – 2PM and Tuesday – Saturday from 7AM – 4PM.
Phone: (916) 645-1605
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