When Ilee and Michael Muller first heard about Elk Horn, Iowa from friends who had visited the small Danish town, they never imagined they’d move there. The California couple was skeptical of their friends’ high praise, so they decided to visit it for themselves, during which they too fell in love with the area and the community, the wide-open air and the slow pace.
A few years later, a restaurant in Elk Horn went up for sale, and an Iowa friend who knew of the family’s love for the area and Michael’s passion for cooking from scratch encouraged the Mullers to open a new restaurant in town. Michael and Ilee loved the idea of leaving the hustle and bustle of California, so they agreed and moved to a nearby acreage with their two daughters in tow. The perfect timing and leap of faith in the move therefore inspired the restaurant’s name – Grace on Main.
“It was by the grace of God that everything worked out the way it did,” Ilee said. “We were very fortunate to have people rally around us and have an eatery in the community. Iowa nice is real and that’s a huge factor for why we chose to move out here.”
The family quickly learned the strong sense of community that Iowa’s small towns boast. It wasn’t long after Grace on Main opened its doors in March 2020 that everything was shut down due to COVID-19. The restaurant immediately earned even greater local support and managed to survive by selling Michael’s unique pizzas through the restaurant window.
These efforts and Michael’s delicious creations started gaining notice across the state, earning the restaurant three awards in 2020 and 2021: 2020 New Business of the Year from the Shelby County Chamber of Commerce; 2020 Rural Operator of the Year from the Iowa Restaurant Association; and 2021 Outstanding Dining Business from Iowa Tourism.
“It was very humbling to be accepted by the community and win such awards,” Ilee said. “It’s fun for us to hear people express excitement and joy in Michael’s creations. We’ve fallen in love with being here and investing time, energy and money into this community.”
Today, as the Mullers run the restaurant with Ilee and their eldest daughter behind the front counter and Michael and their youngest daughter working in the kitchen, the family is still getting used to Iowa nice in more ways than they could imagine. From a huge turnout at their daughter’s high school graduation party to neighbors coming together to pull a school bus out of the ditch in the winter to something as simple as customers moving tables to make room for bigger groups in the restaurant, their admiration for their new home continues to grow.
Now, as the restaurant prepares to move to a larger space that formerly housed the Danish Table, increasing their capacity from the current 32 seats to over 120, the opportunities to create a valuable community space are even more attainable. With plans to offer private dining for events and partner with local schools and the Iowa Restaurant Association to create a culinary internship program, the Mullers are excited to give back to a community that welcomed them with open arms.
“It’s so amazing to be in a community that is absolutely 100% supportive, and everyone is so sincere,” Ilee said. “It’s not who has a nicer car and how much money you have; if you need help, everyone is willing to drop everything and help. You don’t get that back in California.”