Terry Kapoun read the story when Mr. C’s closed.
He read the story when Caniglia’s Venice Inn, Piccolo Pete’s and other classic Omaha restaurants ended their long tenures.
And now he’s adding his own institution to the list: Bohemian Cafe, a staple of South 13th Street, will close its doors Sept. 24.
“We always thought we were different enough to keep this from happening,” Kapoun said of the restaurant, which opened around 1924 and which his family took over in 1959. “We know what it means to Omaha.”
William Gonzalez, born and raised in South Omaha and now a photo archives associate at the Durham Museum, said the neighborhood around the restaurant has always been the epicenter of Omaha’s Czech, Bohemian and Polish heritage. Many of those immigrants moved to Omaha to work at South Omaha’s packing plants.
“The Bohemian Cafe represents that heritage,” Gonzalez said. “Places like this help keep alive that memory and the tradition of a community.”
Kapoun said a list of reasons — a staff and chef closing in on retirement years, declining numbers of diners and stiff competition in the restaurant business — contributed to the decision. But if some young entrepreneur came forward with the desire and cash to keep the classic Czech restaurant in business, he’d happily accept the offer.
“Hopefully someone will take it over,” he said. “We can help them out for a couple of years. It tugs at our heart to do this.”
Younger members of the Kapoun family won’t take over the business, but Kapoun said a younger generation’s knowledge of things like social media and the Internet, part of running a modern restaurant, is something that the Bohemian Cafe needs to attract a new generation of diners willing to try sometimes unfamiliar cuisine.
The menu at the restaurant is truly singular in the city. Diners most often go for the boiled beef and dill gravy and the Czech goulash. The roast duck and pork, served with tangy kraut, bready dumplings and no shortage of homemade gravy, are popular, too. A bowl of liver dumpling soup is like nothing else in the city.
Svickova, though, is one dish that often takes some finessing. Kapoun said when tour groups come through the restaurant, most often to learn about making kolache and the neighborhood’s Bohemian history, only a few order the svickova. But when he describes the savory dish of Czech sauerbraten roasted in a seasoned brine that’s then used as stock for a white wine and sour cream gravy, people’s eyes light up.
“We had to be smart and educate them and tell them what it is,” he said. That happens for many dishes on the restaurant’s menu.
Louis Macala, a Czech immigrant, started the restaurant around 1924, selling dinners and cold sandwiches in a hotel on 13th Street. In the early 1930s he moved his business to the bay that’s now the Donut Stop, 1256 S. 13th St., and called it the Louis Macala Cafe. In 1935 he renamed the restaurant Bohemian Cafe.
Kapoun’s grandparents, Josef and Ann Libor, took over in 1959 and moved it to its current location, 1406 S. 13th St. Ann is responsible for its distinctive exterior, decorated with hand-painted colorful tiles and a backlit image of a Bohemian boy and girl.
In 1966 Kapoun’s parents, Mert and Robert, took over. Mert, who is now 88, still visits the cafe daily.
“She comes down every morning and cleans a little bit and spends some time with the girls,” Kapoun said, “and then she goes home.”
Ron Kapoun, Terry Kapoun’s older brother, has been the head chef since 1979, and many generations of the family have lived above the restaurant. The family, which also includes Ron and Terry’s siblings Bob Kapoun and Marsha Bogatz, will mark 50 years as the restaurant’s owners in July.
Terry Kapoun dreaded telling the restaurant’s 28 employees on Tuesday. One waitress started there in 1967.
And though he loves hearing the stories from its longtime customers, it’s sad, too. Many times over the years, he said, some of those customers would ask why the restaurant didn’t move to west Omaha.
“I mean, it wouldn’t really be the Bohemian Cafe,” he said.
Many younger diners now come to the restaurant to eat because it’s tied to their own past. Perhaps they dined with parents or grandparents, Kapoun said. Over the years, as diners walked out the door, they’d often comment, “Please don’t close!” Kapoun said he knew that day would come, but he didn’t think it would be so soon.
He doesn’t know what he’ll do come September.
“I always thought I would be working here until I was 80 years old and couldn’t work any more,” said Kapoun, 64. “This restaurant has been the hub of our family. I couldn’t work in another restaurant.”
For now, he says, it’s business as usual at 1406 S. 13th St., open every day except Tuesday starting at 11 a.m.
"It’s so much more than a business,” Kapoun said. “Food is so much more than a business. It’s an emotional connection with people.”
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