A Vietnamese coffee brand born in the early stages of the pandemic will soon open its first permanent cafe in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Fat Miilk, first launched in September 2020 as a mail order brand, targets to open before Thanksgiving at 5018 N. Broadway Street, tucked amid a longstanding community of Vietnamese-owned restaurants and businesses.
The surrounding area and location — next door to the banh mi experts at Ba Le Sandwiches — were major draws for owner Lan Ho. “Honestly, it’s just a no-brainer for us when it comes to what is already there [in the neighborhood],” she says. “When you look at all the amazing Vietnamese restaurants there and the board of commerce, which is so big on developing that area, it just made sense for our new progressive Vietnamese coffee concept to be up there.”
Vietnamese coffee beans and the country’s coffee culture serve as a throughline for the evolving brand. At its inception, Fat Miilk set itself apart in the competitive at-home coffee brewing industry with a focus on robusta beans sourced directly from specialty farmers in Vietnam. Coffee drinkers in the U.S. are by largely used to arabica, a coffee bean often regarded as sweet and fruity, as opposed to the bold, nutty, chocolate profile of robusta, which Ho feels is too often dismissed as a secondary product.
But the unfairly maligned bean, and its treatment in the hands of Ho and her team, already has a local fanbase due to a series of pop-ups Fat Miilk held over the past two years. Unsurprisingly, events in Uptown were especially well-attended, and Ho says that residents would travel to other parts of the city for a cup (or several). The events also were an opportunity for Fat Miilk to educate the public about the brewing process and presentation — “the best way” in Ho’s view — through a slow-drip phin filter and mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
“It was quite a tease for a lot of people,” says Ho. “They kept asking, where can we find you next? The demand was just overwhelming, so it was a no-brainer for me to start looking into a brick-and-mortar and be on the community level.”
Service at the completed cafe will bear a stronger resemblance to a cocktail bar than a coffee shop, with a handful of baristas and staff approaching customers directly to discuss the menu, take orders, and complete purchases with handheld devices. Ho also promises a prominent phin brewing station visible through a large window so customers can watch the process unfold — an experience she likens to watching chefs make fresh pasta in a restaurant.
Though the space is 1,900 square feet in total, workers are sectioning off only 500 or 600 square feet for the storefront itself. There will also be a commissary space and test kitchen — features well-suited to the infrastructure left over from the previous tenant T’oui Macaron and Patisserie.
If the cafe is a hit, Ho envisions measured expansion in the vein of gourmet Italian food and restaurant emporium Eataly. “I see it existing in major markets with Uptown as the flagship for the Chicago market,” she says. “But who knows, we’ll open up this one and see what it looks like. Maybe there will be 10 in Chicago in the next few years!”
Fat Miilk Cafe, 5018 N. Broadway Street, Scheduled to open in October or November.