A Vietnamese coffee brand born at the start 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, aims to open before Thanksgiving at 5018 N. Broadway Street, nestled amid a longtime community of restaurants and businesses owned by Vietnamese.
The surrounding area and location – next to the banh mi experts at Ba Le Sandwiches – have been major pluses 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 important in the development of this region, it only made sense that our new progressive Vietnamese cafe concept was up there. “
Vietnamese coffee beans and the country’s coffee culture serve as a common thread in the evolution of the brand. At its inception, Fat Miilk distinguished itself in the competitive home brewing industry by focusing on robusta beans sourced directly from specialty farmers in Vietnam. Coffee drinkers in the United States are largely accustomed to arabica, a coffee bean often seen as sweet and fruity, as opposed to the bold, nutty, chocolatey profile of robusta, which Ho says is too often dismissed as a secondary product.
But the unjustly maligned bean, and its treatment at the hands of Ho and his team, already has a local fanbase due to a series of Fat Miilk pop-ups staged over the past two years. Unsurprisingly, events in Uptown were particularly busy, and Ho says residents were heading to other parts of town for a cuppa (or more). The events also provided an opportunity for Fat Miilk to educate the public on the brewing process and presentation – “the best way” according to Ho – through a slow-drip phin filter and mixed with sweetened condensed milk.
“It was a real tease for a lot of people,” Ho says. “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 in a brick and mortar and be at the community level.
Service in the completed cafe will look more like a cocktail bar than a cafe, with a handful of baristas and staff talking directly to customers to discuss the menu, take orders and make purchases with handheld devices. . Ho also promises a phin brewing station visible through a large window so customers can watch the process unfold — an experience she compares to watching chefs prepare fresh pasta at a restaurant.
Although the space is 1,900 square feet in total, workers only separate 500 or 600 square feet for the storefront itself. There will also be a curatorial space and a test kitchen – features well suited to the infrastructure left behind by former tenant T’oui Macaron et Pâtisserie.
If the cafe is successful, Ho envisions a measured expansion in the vein of Italian gourmet cuisine and the Eataly restaurant. “I see it existing in major markets with Uptown as the flagship of the Chicago market,” she says. “But who knows, we’ll open this one up and see what it looks like. Maybe there will be 10 in Chicago in the next few years!
Fat Milk Café, 5018 N. Broadway Street, scheduled to open October or November.