A haunting whistle pierces through the noise and conversations in town. People stop talking and turn to identify the source of the sound. When they see it comes from a passing train, children run to watch the train rumble by.
Americans are fascinated by trains, which are an integral part of the country’s history. Everyone from an amateur train lover to an obsessive model train collector enjoys them, and taking the train can make an everyday commute new and different.
Hillsborough residents who want a bite to eat while listening to trains pass by the West End now have a new source of locally grown, sustainably farmed food and drinks, The Whistle. The train-themed coffee shop sells sandwiches, baked goods, coffee, beer, and wine bought from local bakeries and brewers.
Owners Doug Baker and Jamie Coomber, 53 and 56, respectively, had a soft opening last month and plan to have a grand opening in a few weeks. The shop is located at 250 S. Nash St., close enough to feel and hear the Amtrak trains that roll by six times a day. Freight trains pass by as well, usually in the evenings.
This proximity is what inspired the name of the shop, although Baker describes himself as a “train lover” and has always admired trains. He loves riding trains because “you don’t have to worry about anything. … You can relax and enjoy that rhythm, what you’re seeing out the windows, (and) watch America go by.”
Coomber, who moved to the U.S. from London in 2011, calls the train whistle a “mournful sound” that is the “whole heart and soul of the States” and “evokes some feelings.”
Train-themed memorabilia is placed throughout the shop. Photos of trains cover one wall, toy trains donated by a local woman sit behind the counter, and authentic train lanterns hang from the ceiling. Baker hopes to collect more items over time. “If it fits in and we’ve got a spot for it, why not?” he said. He said the shop currently has a “clean and rustic” feel. Tables and a bar seat 30 people.
Baker and Coomber plan to have live music three to four nights a week. Sarah Aili, a Nashville folk singer, performed on Aug. 26. Baker hopes to have local and out-of-state performers come by. “We really have a lot of talent in this area,” Baker said.
The hours are currently 7 a.m. to midnight Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays, and 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Mondays.
The drinks served at the shop include locally roasted coffee, natural and regular sodas, craft and domestic beer, and sustainably farmed wines. The foods offered are “freshly baked goods from local bakeries” and “freshly made sandwiches, salads, and wraps.”
For the last four years, Baker has actively thought about owning his own restaurant. He chose to open the restaurant in Hillsborough because there’s “something about Hillsborough that’s different” and because residents believe in eating locally.
Lisa Wells, owner of The Whistle’s neighboring pet store Paws at the Corner, said she is “very excited that it’s going to bring more people in.” Bartender Sarah Jarvis described the store “as a café (and) bar with a warm atmosphere and a friendly ownership.”
Baker and Coomber met on a golf course by chance.
“I was playing golf by myself. Jamie was playing with another friend of ours,” Baker said. “I’m playing behind them and faster, and I come up to them on the fifth tee. … I was like, ‘I don’t know, I tell you what. You guys look cool, I’ll play along with you guys.’ So after a few holes, we were laughing and having a good time, so we became instant friends.”
“None of this would have happened at all (if I didn’t play with Jamie),” he said. “It would have been just two other guys that I passed through on a golf course. Instead of that, by saying, ‘Yeah, I’d like to play along with you guys,’ I now have two lifelong friends, a business partner, (and) a dream fulfilled. It’s a heck of a message.”