Necessity was the mother of invention for Micah Woerner, owner of Little Whitehouse Subs at 218 Whitehead St., Key West. “I can’t remember having a good sub in Key West,” he said. Looking as much to enjoy a sandwich as to sell one, he opened his space next to the Mel Fisher Maritime Museum in July with his partner in love and lunchmeat, Joy Terwilliger.
The couple hails from the East Coast, Woerner from Baltimore and Terwilliger from north Jersey, where quality sandwich shops abound. The name Little Whitehouse Subs is a nod to the famed White House Subs of Atlantic City, where Woerner’s grandmother lived. “It’s a nod to them; a nod I hope I don’t get sued about,” Woerner said. The name is also a reference to the shop’s proximity to President Harry Truman’s Key West digs and to a family heirloom, an autographed photo of Truman taken in Islamorada, and given to Woerner by his grandmother, which now hangs in a handmade frame by the cash register.
Woerner’s own history is marked by his decision to move south to the island in 1997. After decades in the service industry, a fated firing last year convinced him to go into business for himself. While Terwilliger had trepidation about opening, especially in the shadow of COVID-19, Woerner remained characteristically confident. “This kind of thing doesn’t make me nervous,” he said with a laugh.
Bravado aside, the pair is dead serious about quality and customer service. “As much shit as I talk, I don’t want people to be disappointed,” Woerner said. Pandemic lockdown gave the couple ample time to experiment with recipes and solicit feedback. “Before we opened, we gave away hundreds of subs. Every recipe got a dry run,” said Terwilliger, who invited friends and locals via Facebook to try free sandwiches during the research-and-development phase. “We tested a lot because we wanted to have the best Italian sub on the island.”
It would seem the people have spoken. “The Balboa,” their iteration of the perfect Italian sub, has sold well over 2,000 since opening. The rest of the menu reflects Woerner’s irreverent sense of humor. The build your own option is “The Karen.” The chicken sandwich, marinated in Portier’s World Famous Marinade, is “The Road Kill.”
Terwilliger, the literal and metaphorical sweet side of the business, has been baking for years and creates a different cupcake every day, posting her confections to Instagram every morning. Thus far, she has yet to repeat a recipe or fail to sell out by early afternoon. Fan favorites include carrot cake, Red Velvet and a cinnamon cereal crunch. As for the experience of working alongside her partner? “We don’t argue ever, so it’s pretty great. I want to kick him every once in a while, but I love him at the end of the day,” she said.
“Why only at the end of the day?” Woerner asked with feigned shock.
Miguel de Cervantes said all sorrows are less with bread, in which case Woerner is a certified purveyor of happiness. He gets his bread delivered from an undisclosed bakery in Atlantic City, and while he adamantly refuses to reveal his source, he proudly provides the holy grail of carbohydrates to Key Westers. “There’s only one other person in Florida who has this bread. It’s not cheap, but I want to have the best.”
Little Whitehouse Subs and its hallowed bread anchor the newly revitalized complex at 218 Whitehead St., also home to Kirby’s Closet, Hidden Gems Botanica, Cayo Beauty Lounge and the coming-soon Comedy Key West. The “love thy neighbor” vibe is high among the tenants, with a luck candle from Hidden Gems burning in the Little Whitehouse shop window and Kirby Myers herself dropping in for a meatball pick-up on the day of our interview.
The space is bright and inviting and the sandwiches unparalleled in size and quality. “Half now, other half later” is the fitting motto for most of the subs served at Little Whitehouse. The couple serves Boar’s Head meat and cheeses and all sandwiches come with homemade pasta salad, potato chips or the purple cabbage-based Charm City Slaw, an homage to Baltimore. Woerner reps his hometown at every turn. In a tip of the hat to his home team and a snub to their rivals, Woerner installed a black and yellow box fan in the kitchen. “It’s the only Steelers fan allowed in here,” he explained with a laugh.
But seriously, all are welcome at Little Whitehouse, and Terwilliger reported that 95% of their business has come from locals who quickly become return customers.
Woerner echoed his appreciation with signature sarcasm. “I love everything about Key West except for the weather and the people,” he deadpanned before admitting, “I really can’t think of any place better to live.”
I can’t think of a better place to eat.
Little Whitehouse Subs is open seven days a week, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at 218 Whitehead St.