With its wood-paneled walls, pictures of sunflowers and small-town atmosphere, the Branding Iron Café could be the set for a Hallmark movie.
Customers sit on wooden benches at the counter, drinking coffee from white ceramic cups, while cowboys herd cattle in Western movies on a flat screen TV.
Menus list classic, home-style fare like hamburgers, hot beef sandwiches and bacon and eggs. A display case holds cellophane-wrapped cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.
The tall, white building that houses the café was a horse and mule barn in the 1930s and still sits on the property of Wahoo Livestock Sales. Since becoming a café, generations of families have brought their children here to eat breakfast before going to cattle sales.
Now, the café at 636 E. First St., in Wahoo is also a place where city dwellers come to get a taste of an earlier era and take in the country décor. Many appreciate the agricultural setting.
“You have breakfast with the cows,” café owner Lee Maly said. “There’s cow sales here every Friday, so there’s usually cows out here in the pens on the weekends. People from Lincoln and Omaha come out here and they think it’s quaint.”
Waitress Karen Jonas describes the café’s appeal.
“Places like this are disappearing from the landscape and people from the city seek this place out for the feeling of a homecoming,” she said.
Even more people have come to the cafe since it became part of the 2023 Nebraska Passport program, which features a booklet listing 70 must-stop-by locations in the state. When they visit a locale, participants get a stamp in their booklet and receive prizes after visiting a certain number of places.
Maly estimates Passport has brought 20 or 30 new people a day. Visitors tell her they like they the homey décor, classic, comfort foods and homemade desserts.
For Maly, café ownership has been a longtime dream. She was a teenager when she started cooking for her family. She later cooked for her five kids and spouse.
When she was 40, Maly went to culinary school at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, earning an associate’s degree in hospitality in 2010.
By then, she’d already met her husband, Mike, in 2003 and they married in 2013. He owned Maly’s Landing, a bar in Wahoo. She helped him run the bar for about the last 10 years of its 20-year tenure. When he wanted to retire, they sold the bar.
Tyler Sudik, who owns Wahoo Livestock Sales, asked if she’d be interested in running the café, because the woman operating what was called the Stockyard Cafe wanted to retire.
“It was a perfect opportunity,” Maly said. “I was doing what I have always wanted to do and I don’t have to drive out of town to do it. It was like it was meant to be.”
She made upgrades to the cafe – cleaning and repainting, putting in new flooring and equipment.
“The guys from the sale barn wanted me to display their brands on the wall and name it, the ‘Branding Iron,’ so I did,” she said, pointing to a wooden wall hanging emblazoned with cattle brands.
Maly opened the Branding Iron in November 2019.
Justin McHugh is the head cook. Maly cooks with him and does whatever else needs to be done. Maly’s sister, Tina Reed, is the head baker. Halaya Curry, 18, is the dishwasher.
“It’s a family rather than just people you work with,” Curry said of Maly and her employees. “This is the best job I’m ever gonna have, just because of how the staff treats me.”
When she leaves for college to study mortuary science, Curry will take good memories of talking with Maly about The Beatles, helping her plant a garden and going to the Christmas party at her house.
Originally from Omaha, Jonas said she was a single mom with two kids and needed a second job when she started washing dishes at the Stockyard Café in 2012. Three years later, Jonas began waitressing full time.
“We have a lot of the same regulars (customers) and a lot of new regulars and working for Lee is awesome,” Jonas said. “She’s just a good boss. She’s very business savvy and she and I just clicked as friends. It’s always nice to work with somebody you can talk to about things.”
Jonas appreciates the regular customers, including one nicknamed, Snarky Bob, who came with a group every Saturday.
She remembers when group members told her Snarky Bob had thyroid cancer. Within three weeks, he was gone.
“Snarky Bob was one of my favorite customers of all time,” Jonas said. “Another one of my favorites was Murph. He and Roscoe came in every Sunday. Murph is gone now, too, but they’re emblazoned on my heart, because we weren’t just a restaurant to them, we made it like home.”
The café has another good memory for Jonas. Eight years ago – during the Saunders County Fair – she asked a regular customer, named Steve, to go with her to the demolition derby.
“Four years later, we got married,” Jonas said.
Customers Brian and Christi Pearson of Mead, who came with their 1-year-old daughter, Lilly, have their own memories.
They formerly patronized Maly’s Landing, which offered karaoke.
“That’s a big part of how we got together and got married,” Brian said. “We’ve loved Lee for years. We love coming here to support Lee and it helps that the food is amazing, too.”
Christi said she always gets the eggs, hash browns and toast.
Brian likes “The Cure,” which starts with hash browns and then can be topped with all types of omelet fare such as ham, bacon, a variety of vegetables, sausage gravy, cheese and eggs. It’s served with a side of toast.
Maly said “The Cure” is a customer favorite, along with several other options.
“We are comfort breakfast food and classic, diner-style lunches – like reubens, patty melts, hot beef and burgers,” Maly said. “We try to do the classics very well. We don’t try to snazzy them up and make them gourmet—just good, old, downhome, breakfast food.”
Maly cooks and slices corned beef by hand for the reubens and corned beef hash. She’s been told the hot beef sandwich is probably the best in the state.
The dessert menu has been expanded to include more cakes and pies. It features bread pudding and cinnamon and sticky pecan rolls.
Maly notes the café’s Hallmark movie-type setting.
“You step back in time, where things are peaceful and not part of the crazy world,” Maly said. “It’s like the good, old days. We’re striving for that feeling of no worries and remembering the past.”
Café hours are 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Monday. It’s closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Weekends are the busiest days.