When family owners of the Bohemian Cafe announced in May the restaurant was for sale and would close September 24, it marked another casualty among classic eateries calling it quits. An eventual surge in customers wanting to indulge Czech-German-Polish specialties was expected, but sibling co-owners Terry Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz never expected the deluge would start almost immediately.
And not let up.
“We made the announcement on a Tuesday [one of two days during the week the cafe’s closed], and that Wednesday we served 500 dinners where we normally served maybe 225 on a weekday,” said Kapoun. The numbers kept growing. “Thursday we served 600, Friday we served 700, Saturday 800 and then Sunday it dropped back to 650-675. We expected this maybe the end of August, the beginning of September, not the next day.” And certainly not every day since.
“It’s just overwhelming,” he said.
The droves coming for roasted meat in rich gravy, hearty bread dumplings, sweet-sour cabbage, kolaches, strudel and a Pilsner pint, combined with reduced hours, means long lines at the South 13th Street eatery. The wait allows time to admire the facade’s decorative tiling whose folk art displays continue inside.
Queues of hungry diners have meant doubling the batches of dumplings and kolaches normally made. The same for the roasted beef, chicken, pork loin and duck. For the first time in anyone’s memory, the restaurant ran out of duck one evening.
Head chef Ron Kapoun, another sibling, learned the unwritten recipes from Laddie Svoboda. The slow-cooked meats with special seasonings and pan drippings for cream-laced gravies infuse dishes with deep flavors arrived at by practice and instinct.
Families used to commemorating special occasions and holidays there are returning to relive powerful sense memories. Sentiments get shared with Bogatz and Terry Kapoun’s wife, Steph, who split greeter duties. The Bohemian’s Facebook page is filled with reminiscences and farewells.
Terry Kapoun said several ex-pat Nebraskans have returned just for another meal.
Bogatz said the family’s “seeing customers we haven’t seen for quite a few years.” First-timers are also among the throng and they’re getting turned on to unfamiliar items like svickova, jaeger schnitzel, Czech goulash and liver dumpling soup.
“We’ve had a lot of new people in. They heard about us and they wanted to at least experience it once, and they’ve just loved it. They wish they would have been here before.”
After 92 years in business, 69 in the same family, the Bohemian will be no more unless a new owner steps forward and the younger set of the four-generation clan that’s run it since 1947 decides to continue the tradition. Terry Kapoun’s parents purchased the cafe from his grandparents in 1966, and he and his siblings later took it over. It’s the only job Kapoun and Bogatz have ever had. Their children and grandchildren have all worked there. The full-time waitstaff, some on the job 30 or 40 years, are regarded as family.
Its end follows other beloved stand-alone dining spots now gone: Mr. C’s, The French Cafe, Vivace’s, Venice Inn, Piccolo’s, M’s Pub. Only a few remain with such a pedigree: Cascio’s, Johnny’s Cafe, Gorat’s, Joe Tess Place. Petrow’s, The Dundee Dell, Howard’s Charro Cafe.
Terry Kapoun laments independents fading amidst chains.
“There were so many great restaurants just in this little area [Little Italy-Little Bohemia], and they were all family-owned.” With each loss, he said, Omaha “loses a little bit of its personality and character.”
Each had its own niche. The Bohemian stood out with Czech folk figures flanking the huge neon sign over the entrance, a waitstaff attired in traditional garb and that Old World menu.
“To so many people, this is Czechoslovakia in Omaha,” Kapoun said. “Customers who’ve gone to the Czech Republic tell us when they eat at cafes in Prague it’s just like eating at the Bohemian Cafe. We take pride in giving Czechs and non-Czechs an authentic cuisine experience.”
The owners say that where today’s entrepreneurial indies are apt to move on when the going gets tough, family-owned spots persevere. “I don’t think there’s been a family restaurant where at times they didn’t pay salaries or had to hold them awhile when things were sluggish,” said Kapoun, who has been rising at 2:30 a.m. to start cooking 90 minutes later nearly every day for 37 years. “Only in a family restaurant would things carry on this long or the same head chef still be there since 1979.”
As Marsha Bogatz said, “You sacrifice for the restaurant.”
Even with advancing age and decades of long hours taking their toll, the 64-year-old Kapoun said, “I really thought I’d be working until I was 80 with the kids. It just didn’t work out that way.”
The Cafe’s evocation of homey nostalgia makes folks feel a part of it, which is why Kapoun regards himself the steward of a communal treasure.
“It was always that type of a feel,” he said. “I’ve never felt like an owner.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.