Jason Gober and Tracey Collins are bringing a little of their hometown to Whitefish. The pair of Chicago-borns recently opened the Empire Café, which specializes in hot dogs. Not your average grocery store variety, but straight from the Vienna Beef Factory. “I grew up five blocks from there,” says Gober. “They’re the real deal.”
With Gober’s four years of owning coffee shops and Collins’ 20 years in the restaurant industry in the upper Midwest, the twosome shopped around before landing on the corner of Wisconsin and Edgewood in Whitefish. They revamped the old Wildwood Bakery house into the café and named it for the Empire Builder—the train connecting Chicago and Whitefish.
A few weeks ago, Gober and Collins opened the café, introducing their Vienna Beef Factory dogs. “People are skeptical, but they’re authentic,” says Gober. The hot dogs are not just from Chicago, but have a lengthy legacy there. In 1893, two Austria-Hungarian immigrants introduced hot dogs to visitors at Chicago’s world exposition. Within a year, the pair opened their store, selling the all-Vienna Beef franks made from original family recipes. Today, the Vienna Beef Factory is known for its 100% domestic beef with no fillers, artificial colors, or flavorings. The factory also made the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004 when it created the world’s longest hot dog at 37 feet and 2 inches long.
Open for breakfast and lunch, the Empire Café also serves up made-from-scratch pancakes, scrambles, Big League Bagels, burgers, salads, and Tracey’s Homemade Chili–a specialty from Collins’ days of just tossing ingredients in the pot. “Everybody likes it,” she says, adding that it is served with a side of huckleberry cornbread.
With espresso, hand-scooped ice cream, and smoothies, the drink list spans more than one whiteboard menu. Their huckleberry float tosses a scoop of huckleberry ice cream into a frothy glass of Flathead Lake Monster huckleberry soda. But Gober points to their signature drink—Cookies and Cream Latte Milkshake. “It’s a meal by itself,” he laughs.
The restaurant is open Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and Saturdays, 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Breakfast is served all day on weekends.
Will the hot dogs catch on in Whitefish? Gober answers, “We just know how good they are.”
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