Fenwick’s Tasty Tradition

For the Mumford clan, Warren’s Station offers a living and a lifestyle. For diners, Warren’s offers great hospitality.

Warren’s Station has been a Fenwick Island landmark for 50 years. Photograph by Keith MosherIn June 1970, Jeff and Paula Mumford took a vacation to celebrate their first wedding anniversary. Jeff, who’d recently graduated from the University of Delaware, was still looking for a job. Paula, three years his senior, was a teacher in North Wilmington.

When they returned home, the apartment phone was ringing. Paula picked it up. It was Warren D. Johnson, owner of Warren’s Family Restaurant in Fenwick Island, where Jeff had worked summers since he was 14.

“If you want this place, come get it,” Johnson told Paula. “I can’t run it without you.” Forty years later, “Here we are,” says Paula, sitting in the couple’s attractive home, across the parking lot from Warren’s Station on Ocean Highway at Indian Street. They renamed it in 1983 after rebuilding it to look like an old U.S. Lifesaving Service station. Now it even has a new blue roof and solar panels.

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The restaurant, which turns 50 this year, is as much of an icon as the Fenwick Island Lighthouse and the Bethany Beach totem pole. Only this tourist attraction will whet your appetite. Picture a fan of Texas toast, dipped in a special mix, cooked to a crisp golden brown and dusted with powdered sugar.

Then there is the 6-ounce “crab cutlet,” a baked potato-sized crab cake. “My husband particularly loves the crab cutlet, and normally he gets the combo with the cutlet and the turkey salad,” says Meg Morgan, who has been visiting Warren’s Station with her family for 16 years.

Odd combo? Not at Warren’s, where turkey rules the roost. “Every day is Thanksgiving,” says Bill Newman of Rehoboth Beach. Along with the traditional roast turkey dinner, the restaurant serves turkey salad, turkey-rice soup, turkey croquettes, turkey clubs and turkey BLTs. As Jeff Baxter of Bethany Beach puts it, “The turkey is fantastic.”

The restaurant’s milestone birthday is a remarkable achievement, not only because the restaurant industry has more ups and downs than a Funland ride, but also because it’s stayed in the Mumford family since they took ownership in 1971. This is a place where some things change—Caesar salads, broiled offerings and spinach salads are relatively new to the menu—and some things stay the same, namely the summer hours, the family-friendly service and the good value.

Warren’s Family Restaurant was the dream of Johnson, a middle-aged turkey farmer from Nottingham, Pennsylvania. Johnson, who wanted a summer-only business, frequently visited friends in Fenwick. He liked what he saw and decided to open a restaurant—never mind the fact he had no restaurant experience.

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With his long neck and sharp features, he looked just like a turkey, Paula says. He certainly had something to gobble about. As president of the National Turkey Federation, he once presented a turkey to President Harry S. Truman.

Johnson had at first wanted to run a barbecue place, so he built a small annex in front of the restaurant for the smoker. “Smoke poured into the dining room,” Jeff says. “It didn’t work out.”

So Johnson turned his attention to family-style meals. He had roast turkey down to a science. Past menus also promised Black Angus steak, but without specifying the cut. That’s because Johnson would buy whatever steaks were on sale in supermarkets up north, then store them in the freezer until he drove them down to the beach. The crab cutlet recipe came from his seafood vendor on Deal Island, Maryland. An old menu lists the price at $1.85. Now the price tops $12. Back then, a platter included an entrée and two sides. The dinner was served with soup, salad, sides and dessert.

At 14, Jeff joined Warren’s as a dishwasher. He quickly graduated to breakfast cook. The morning job suited the Selbyville native, who’d spent summers at the beach all his life. He spent afternoons surfing. He met Paula, a Seaford girl, at a party in the summer of 1966. Jeff had burned his face over a gas jet at Warren’s, and the medication he wore dripped from his face onto his shirt. “I felt sorry for him,” Paula says. She started working for Warren’s in 1967. They married in 1969.

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Jeff was 21 and Paula was 24 when Johnson called to see if they were interested in owning the restaurant. The timing was right, and there was serendipity: Jeff’s middle name is Warren, which is also his father’s name. The summer of 1970, the Mumfords learned the ropes from Johnson. They took over in 1971. Johnson went back to Nottingham full time to raise turkeys. (He passed on a Thanksgiving weekend.)

Though the restaurant was one of the few eateries in Fenwick, it was still tough going. The Mumfords had no turkey farm to fall back on. “It was hard to maintain a mortgage and a lifestyle,” Jeff says.

Son Scott was born in 1973, shortly after Jeff built a house on a lot behind the restaurant. Wendy came along in 1975. For seven years, the family lived in Fenwick full time. Along with the isolation, they fought the damp, chilly weather. The home’s lower level was so cold, the family spent most of their time in the upstairs living area. Paula felt like she was confined to an apartment in winter.

Jeff eventually built a house on Derrickson’s Creek, and they built a new beach home on what was the employee parking lot. Though the two houses are less than three miles apart, they stay at the beach house during summer, driving to the other house every day to get the mail and paper.

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Shortly after taking over Warren’s, the Mumfords spruced up the restaurant with fresh paint and curtains. But it wasn’t enough. In 1983 they planned a major overhaul that absorbed the existing structure by adding wings and a new kitchen.

For the design, they chose a lifesaving station. “We wanted to give it some character,” Paula says. “Fenwick Island lost its lifesaving station in the storm of 1962, and it was never rebuilt.” Jeff, who does carpentry in winter, was the general contractor. His helpers were “two cooks, a carpenter and a dog,” he says. “It was a long winter.”

Jeff made all the tables. A local artist painted murals depicting lifesavers in action and the Fenwick Island Lighthouse. There are also photographs of the beaches in days gone by. The Mumfords worried that longtime customers would balk at the changes. They didn’t. No matter its appearance, the restaurant is part of people’s memories—memories they want to relive.

“I first went there as a teenager when I worked across the highway at a motel that’s now gone,” says Randy Gregory of Salisbury, Maryland. “I would go and get my lunch there. I have been there many times over the years, and I always make sure to save room for Mile High Pie.”

The ice cream confection is just one of Mary Lynch’s signature desserts. In her 80s, Lynch, who was once Johnson’s breakfast cook, reports to work at 5:30 or 6 a.m. and stays until noon. Pie varieties include peanut butter, sugar-free fruit, lemon meringue, chocolate chip-pecan, chocolate cream and seasonal fruit pies. There’s apple crisp, carrot cake and rice pudding. Most are $3 to $3.25 each.

The chopped sirloin is gone, but such favorites as crab imperial and sugar-cured ham steak served with raisin sauce remain. (Steaks now include T-bone and sirloin.) The restaurant goes through six 30-pound turkeys a day. The birds are turned into turkey entrées, soup stock and gravy. There are always three soups simmering, including the top-selling cream of crab.

For now, the Mumfords are content to keep the 250-seat restaurant as a seasonal business. It opens Mother’s Day weekend and closes three weeks after Labor Day.

In 2006, when the restaurant installed a new computer system, Paula stepped back. Today, she primarily handles payroll. Elise runs the dining room. When Scott took over the kitchen, Jeff helped Elise until she got her footing. “Now I tell people I’m maintenance and finance,” he says. “When something breaks they call me, and when they need money they call me.”

There’s no moving to Florida, Jeff maintains. There’s no going to Florida during the winter, either. The Mumfords are clearly Sussex County folks, and that is what adds to the charm of Warren’s Station. “We’ve kept great food at reasonable prices with courteous service,” Paula says. “Our motto is, ‘Let our Family Serve Yours.’”

That 50-year-old tradition shows no sign of changing. For the Mumfords, the family business offers both a living and a lifestyle.

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