When a pair of food entrepreneurs brought a treasured Texas delicacy to Chicago in the early stages of the pandemic, they weren’t sure how the city would react. But much to the delight of Houston native Eric Liu and Michigander Tom Bovio, hungry locals have embraced the kolache (“koh-la-chee”), a quintessential Texas breakfast pastry with Czech origins, and their brand, Howdy Kolache.
Originally launched in early 2021 as a wholesale business selling out of coffee shops and bars like Botanical Cafe and Goldstar Bar, Howdy Kolache has accumulated a fanbase strong enough to spawn a permanent storefront that opened in October at 817 W. Fulton Market. “[Kolaches are] a regional food that everybody eats in Texas, but it just so happens that it’s essentially a sandwich that’s enclosed in its own dough,” says Bovio. “It’s comfort food that makes a lot of sense anywhere in America, especially in the Midwest.”
The story of the modern kolache traces back to Bohemian and Moravian Czechs who emigrated en masse in the mid-to-late 1800s to East and Central Texas to a region now dubbed the Czech Belt. Naturally, they also brought recipes for nostalgic dishes including kolaches, though the traditional pastries are made with sweet dough and fillings such as poppy seeds and preserved fruits. But like many dishes brought to the U.S. by immigrants, the form and flavors have changed from generation to generation. As food trends go, the kolache gained national spotlight in 2013 with a New York Times story.
Today, the Texas kolache is typically savory with fillings like smoked sausage, American cheese, and jalapeno — a combination so popular that Howdy Kolache added it to its menu as the “Homesick Texan” after numerous requests from Texas transplants. It joins a selection of 10 other kolache options such as the “Desayuno” (“breakfast” in Spanish) with chorizo, egg, and Chihuahua cheese; the pizza-inspired “Pot Hocket” with pepperoni, mozzarella, pizza sauce, and banana peppers; and the “We Miss Doug,” a classic Chicago-style Vienna hot dog dragged through the garden in a neat dough pocket. It’s named after Doug Sohn, the owner of the iconic hot dog shop Hot Doug’s, which closed in 2014.
Though the fillings are clear attention-grabbers, Bovio says customers shouldn’t underestimate the bun. “It’s a semi-sweet white yeasted dough, almost like [Japanese] milk bread,” he says. “In the early days, we described it as if a King’s Hawaiian roll had a baby with a breakfast taco.”
The Fulton Market space initially served as a multi-purpose office, but as fall approached, Bovio says he and Liu began to seriously contemplate transitioning the location into a retail spot. The pair used shelving and decor to shrink the spacious dining room into a 200-square-foot area with counter service, drip coffee from local roastery Groundswell Coffee Roasters, a handful of indoor tables, and an outdoor patio.
The team’s also building up a stable of corporate catering clients like WeWork and expanding operations to serve weddings and other private gatherings. They see potential as a national brand and are already consulting with coffee shop owners in Milwaukee and Madison, Wisconsin.
“We’re still fleshing out the retail concept, [asking] does this have legs and is it something we want to do,” Bovio says. “We think we’d do well in airports and sports arenas like the United Center or Wrigley Field. Maybe down the road, we could be an option in [grocery store] freezer sections. The sky’s the limit.”
Howdy Kolache, 817 W. Fulton Market, Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.