Successful beginnings

The Iron Oven restaurant is thriving after opening its doors earlier this year

By Samantha Bambino

The Times

Like father, like son: Alex Nalbandian (right) learned from the best. Growing up, he watched his father, Sam (left), successfully manage Rising Sun Pizza in Northeast Philadelphia for more than 30 years and perfect the family recipe for stromboli. Samantha Bambino / Times Photo

In April, The Times introduced its readers to Southampton’s Alex Nalbandian as he prepared to open the doors to his all-new restaurant, The Iron Oven, in a few short weeks. At the time, drastic renovations were underway in the somewhat dark, dreary space at 1134 Street Road. A worn down stage in the corner was in the process of being torn down, while stacks of plastic-wrapped tables and chairs were scattered about, waiting for their rightful homes.

To see the interior of The Iron Oven today, one would never guess it’s the same place. Bright, open and modern with a hint of rustic, Italian charm, the restaurant boasts a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere for any demographic — families with young children can eat in the dining area while friends seeking a post-work happy hour can gather at the spacious bar.

To see how business has been going since The Iron Oven opened its doors to the public on May 2, The Times caught up with proud owner Nalbandian and his tight-knit crew, which includes his father Sam, mother Nellie, chef Niema Womack and general manager Cale Carver.

“It’s night and day from what it was in the beginning to what it is now,” Nalbandian said with a smile. “It’s been really busy, which we’re thankful for.”

But after taking into consideration the vast menu (which is still expanding as we speak), it’s easy to see why the Southampton community and beyond readily jumped aboard The Iron Oven ship. From a plethora of burgers and sandwiches to rich desserts such as a slice of peanut butter cake, there’s a dish to suit virtually every diner’s palate. Kids (and grown picky eaters) can choose from a variety of classic American favorites including grilled cheese and chicken tenders, while those with more sophisticated taste have grilled filet mignon, piña colada shrimp, and numerous other delectable entrees at their disposal.

As Nalbandian predicted during our initial interview in April, the most popular item thus far has been the stromboli.

“It’s been the top seller. That’s what everyone knows us for,” he said. “Nothing around here is better than what we have. We work really hard to perfect that recipe.”

Though the specifics remain a family secret, it’s common knowledge the mouth-watering recipe was originally crafted by Nalbandian’s father, Sam, who has served as the owner of Rising Sun Pizza in Northeast Philadelphia for more than 30 years. According to Sam, it’s all about using high-quality products, something his son learned while watching him build the family’s first business from scratch.

Along with mother Nellie, the trio will unitedly run both restaurants, with Nalbandian primarily managing The Iron Oven while his parents split their time between the two. In addition to his parental support system, Nalbandian has surrounded himself with an experienced staff that’s poised and ready to make the restaurant the area’s go-to spot.

A key player in The Iron Oven’s early success has been chef Womack, who has 13 years in the food industry under her belt. Womack has basically done it all, working with numerous celebrity chefs, opening a French restaurant with her friends, cooking at New Jersey’s elite Green Brook Country Club, and serving as kitchen manager for Turn Point Restaurants.

“I’ve been around,” she laughed. “It’s my passion. I enjoy what I do. I’m just here to make things great and move forward.”

For Womack, this involves staying true to the Nalbandian culinary roots while not being afraid to adjust recipes when needed.

“I’ve been critiquing the food each day, on the spot,” she explained. “It’s all about the customers. We want to please the customers.”

Both she and Nalbandian have been listening intently to early feedback from restaurant-goers and taking everything into consideration, both good and bad. Like any new business, Nalbandian admitted there are still a few kinks to work out, but learning exactly what customers did and didn’t like helps determine how he can provide a better experience next time.

“Right when we hear it, we start working on it,” he said of the feedback.

“We’re not a corporate chain,” added Nellie.

Currently, Womack is working to implement a larger variety of healthy menu items, including salads and more vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. Also in the works are new lunch and happy hour specials, which are slated to include half-priced drinks and appetizers.

Overseeing the execution of these upcoming menu rollouts is general manager Carver, a Southampton native and William Tennent alum who has been working in restaurants throughout Montgomery County and Lehigh Valley for 18 years.

“It’s nice to come back home and work close to home for a family company,” he said.

The fact that the Nalbandians take pride in supporting their community is another plus for Carver. On a weekly basis, members of the local police and fire departments dine at the restaurant, while a number of families have successfully hosted birthday and graduation parties. Multiple area brewing companies are also slated to partner with The Iron Oven, including Naked Brewing in Huntington Valley and Free Will Brewing Co. in Perkasie.

Moving forward, The Iron Oven will continue to refine its offerings to best serve its local foodies. But after creating so much positive buzz in only two months, we don’t expect much will need to change.

For information on The Iron Oven, 1134 Street Road in Southampton, visit ironoven.com. ••

Samantha Bambino can be reached at sbambino@newspapermediagroup.com