Sleeping Bird Coffee is the latest addition to the burgeoning Miller Road Station
By Matt Morrissette
Now thriving in its third incarnation as Miller Road Station, the 105-year-old building across from Haynes Park in Wilmington’s Ninth Ward was the subject of great speculation during its long period of dormancy from 2000 until 2015. With its beautiful Spanish Colonial architecture and convenient location near Salesianum, the Triangle neighborhood, and the I-95 exit on Concord Pike, it seemed a foregone conclusion that someone at some point would do something with the building.
“Someone” turned out to be the owners of Talleyville Towne Shoppes on Route 202, Ralph and Rose Pepe, who purchased the building in late 2015 from the Wilmington Urban Development Grant Corporation, a governmental organization that held the property during the extended period of environmental cleanup required after the building’s prior two lives.
Constructed in 1916, the building was at first home to The Delaware Chemical Engineering Company and served as Francis du Pont’s laboratory. The property was then sold in 1946, beginning its second phase as the headquarters of the Harper-Thiel Electroplating Company, which closed its doors in 2000. The building sat vacant for almost two decades as the State of Delaware decontaminated the site.
After more than a million dollars spent on renovations to the building and grounds, Miller Road Station opened with its first tenants, Wilmington Brew Works, in June of 2018. Initially attracted to the location by the architecture and the possibilities for outdoor seating and activities the site offered, WBW CEO and brewer, Craig Wensell, was nonetheless pleasantly surprised by how quickly things took off.
“When we first opened, we did great business,” Wensell explains. “As a matter of fact, we blew the doors off our five-year-business-plan. I made a very conservative projection about our initial sales, but doing that well out of the gate wasn’t something I had anticipated.”
In September of 2019, Wilmington Brew Works was joined at Miller Road Station by La Pizzeria Metro, a new effort from Mike and Mindy Tumolo, owners of the well-loved Café Riviera in Concord Mall and the Pizzeria Pronto food truck. A symbiotic relationship formed quickly between the two businesses.
According to Mike Tumolo, the aesthetics of the property, the rapid success of WBW, and the track record of the building’s owner, made the location an obvious choice.
“I know the owners to be fair and honest people so that was the initial draw,” says Tumolo. “Obviously, the brewery does quite well and pizza being a sharable item makes it perfect for people who are hanging out and drinking beer. We’ve been good for them, and they’ve been good for us.”
With the addition of LPM to the shopping center, WBW saw a second spurt of growth to their already loyal customer base.
“La Pizzeria Metro definitely brought some more traffic in,” Wensell says. “Pizza and beer are a natural fit! The fact that they do consistently amazing work on their pies and other food is what I would point to as the best component for the expansion in attendance of our patrons.”
As both businesses still find themselves thriving post-pandemic, they’ve been joined at Miller Road Station by a new craft coffee shop with a fantastic pedigree. Sleeping Bird Coffee, a joint effort by Leigh Ann Tona (former owner of the I Don’t Give a Fork food truck) and her real-life partner, Zach DeLong (former proprietor of the Scission Espresso truck which is now Sleeping Bird’s truck), opened in the spring of 2021.
Despite feeling gratitude for the success and longevity of the I Don’t Give a Fork food truck, Tona was eager and ready to move on to a new challenge.
“I had done the food truck for eight and a half years, and I was tired of feeling like I didn’t have a home base” Tona says. “It was a great business in terms of freedom (for the most part), and it was lucrative. However, I was tired of driving everywhere all the time and being outside in the elements.”
According to Tona, it was being fans and patrons of Wilmington Brew Works and La Pizzeria Metro, mixed with a bit of serendipity, that brought them to Miller Road Station.
“Zach and I found the coffee shop location by accident,” Tona explains. “We love Wilmington Brew Works and La Pizzeria Metro and asked the owner of LPM what they thought about a coffee shop at the shopping center while we were eating there (we knew each other through food trucks). He said the landlord was looking for people to run a coffee shop so we really got lucky there.
“We met with the landlord originally in August of 2019 and signed the lease in September of 2020. We are very appreciative of LPM and WBW’s success, and we would not have chosen the location without them being there. They paved the way for Miller Road Station, us, and the success of everyone.”
Still new to the neighborhood, Sleeping Bird’s offerings of craft coffee, pastries, breakfast toasts and sandwiches, salads, wraps, and even soft serve ice cream on the weekends are still being discovered by locals.
“Most of our original business was followers of Zach’s truck, but every day we get new people coming into the shop and asking when we opened because they’re from the neighborhood and never noticed a coffee shop,” says Tona.
As construction continues along the stretch of Miller Road near Miller Road Station, the Ninth Ward appears poised to become a desired site for new local business and one of Wilmington’s new and hip “places to be.” And if the seemingly always packed parking lot and the sea of happy faces spilling out of Wilmington Brew Works, La Pizzeria Metro, and Sleeping Bird Coffee are any indicators, the future looks bright and tastes delicious.