Big Pie Country

Pie season continues at a beloved Whitefish restaurant and bakery, where new ownership keeps the business within a family that embraces consistency and quality in dining

By Mike Kordenbrock
Pie from Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Ski season and tourist season and shoulder season are all reliable markers of the passage of time in Whitefish, but downtown in the basement of the old Masonic Temple building where Loula’s Café is found, another season takes place. And it happens twice a year.

Pie season is what the owners at Loula’s call the weeks leading up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then also the summer stretch, when a steady stream of hungry tourists (and locals) coincides with the demands of wedding parties and other celebrations where the dessert du jour is a Loula’s pie.

Each time pie season arrives, it results in late nights and early mornings at Loula’s, where the ovens (visible inside the restaurant through a serving window with the word “Temptation” painted above) breathe warmth and life into the buttery, flaky crust and sweet fillings that make Loula’s pies the kind of thing people in other states pay to have shipped overnight. The bakery portion of the restaurant makes thousands of pies in a given year. 

The huckleberry peach pie is a favorite of customers, and although Loula’s has reliable huckleberry pickers they source from, availability can be limited depending on the huckleberry crop in any given year. Other huckleberry fillings include a mixed berry involving combinations of four different berries, or huckleberry-raspberry, huckleberry-blackberry, and huckleberry-cherry. There’s even key-lime pie with a huckleberry sauce. There are plenty of non-huckleberry options, too, like bourbon pecan, apple and chocolate cream. Alongside the regular rotation of pies being baked at Loula’s, the bakery is willing to fulfill requests for other fillings or types of pie when possible. 

The baking area of Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Loula’s Turkey sandwich with jalapeño huckleberry chutney and cream cheese at Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

 Even though pies are some of Loula’s most iconic offerings, they’re not the only thing that drives business. If you ask Executive Chef Shaun McCollum what makes Loula’s the kind of place that customers enjoy coming back to, he’ll say it has to do with consistency. Quality food cooked from scratch, and menu mainstays, mean that the people who frequent Loula’s can count on a good meal that likely won’t have radically changed much from the last time they stopped in. It also helps that McCollum has been involved since the start of the restaurant in the early 2000s.

 The pies, which are spearheaded these days by Kiley Covey, are no exception to the restaurant’s commitment to consistency. Covey learned how to bake pies from her mother Mary Lou Covey when Kiley was somewhere between the ages of 14 and 15, and working at a previous restaurant her mother ran, the Spruce Park Café in Coram. It was there that some of the Loula’s menu items debuted and proved their value in the face of the hungry truck drivers, raft guides and park employees that would drop into the diner. Mary Lou Covey, along with Laura Hansen, opened Loula’s in 2002. In fact, the restaurant’s name is a nod to the two women, with Mary Lou, accounting for the “Lou” in Loula’s.

For all the pride Loula’s puts in consistency, there was a rather big change in the summer of 2022. But there’s a pretty sound argument to be made that this change was for the sake of consistency. After 20 years, Mary Lou sold the business off to Shaun McCollum, and her daughter Amber, who is married to Shaun. The McCollum’s business partner is Amber’s sister Kiley, who has taken over as general manager and also runs the bakery. 

Are there any big changes on the horizon?

“No,” Amber McCollum says, with little hesitation. “If it’s not broken don’t fix it. Right? She (Mary Lou) created something amazing and she taught us how to be who we are, and we’re just going to continue on and she’s going to help us continue on. She’s still very much a part of it.”

Kiley Covey, Amber McCollum and Shaun McCollum of Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Poached eggs with hollandaise sauce and house potatoes from Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

One change that Shaun McCollum has fantasized about would involve a neon sign saying “Grits Now,” which he could turn on and off to alert diners as to the availability of the southern breakfast dish, a kind of porridge made from boiled, finely ground corn. The sign would make an interesting addition to an interior décor that already has enough quirks to give Loula’s an authentic, homey feel. Above the kitchen service window, the word “Indulge” is painted on the wall. A few feet away a giant spoon and a giant fork not quite tall enough to ride a rollercoaster hang from the wall next to a window. Throughout the restaurant, stained glass windows hang centered within the space’s actual windows, recasting the light from the street into something more colorful and friendly. Vivid landscape photographs are hung along the walls. And then there’s a butterfly-shaped kite hanging from the ceiling. Several feet across in width, the butterfly’s wings carry elaborate designs in shades of orange and blue.

Make no mistake, regardless of whether McCollum is serious about the “Grits Now” sign, Loula’s does in fact offer grits. Grits are something that McCollum, who grew up in the Augusta, Georgia, area, feels so strongly about that he was able to get them on the menu years ago, despite concerns that they’d sell poorly. The grits are so popular that McCollum says they regularly sell out. Family members from Georgia visit him and vice versa (for his and Amber’s wedding, he says his mother flew to the Flathead with crates of Georgia peaches to be used in pie filling), but grits are another way for him to feel connected to his home state, which he left for Montana more than 20 years ago. 

“It’s just a little salt and pepper. Not chicken stock, you’ve got to have milk cream in there,” McCollum says of his approach to grits, adding that he’s not a big believer in sweeter variations of grits flavored with jam.

“Get here early to get the grits,” Kiley Covey advises.

Fortunately for those who miss out on grits, there’s a whole menu to explore. The restaurant works to source ingredients locally when possible, and quality is a priority. McCollum takes a kind of mildly exhausted pride in the fact that they crack all their eggs, as opposed to the alternatives some breakfast joints use, like pre-packaged liquid eggs.

The fresh eggs show up in cases with 15 dozen in a box. “I probably go through two of those just when I have to crack eggs for your eggs Benedict, or your over-easy eggs, or your sunny-side-up eggs throughout a day.”

The eggs Benedict is a menu highlight, according to McCollum. What makes the Loula’s version of eggs Benedict different from others is the use of white truffle oil to make the Hollandaise sauce that is ultimately draped across the poached eggs.

Other more traditional breakfast fare includes a range of omelets, combination breakfast plates (the “Chubby Yuppie” with scrambled eggs, seasoned veggies, diced bacon and cheddar cheese is a popular one), steak and eggs, French toast (including a lemon-stuffed variety served with raspberry sauce and powdered sugar), burritos, pancakes and even biscuits and gravy. At least up until 2 p.m. when breakfast service ends.

Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon
Pecan pie from Loula’s Cafe in Whitefish on Nov. 3, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Then, of course, there’s lunch, which starts at 11 a.m. Sandwiches, salads, a burrito, and an enchilada dish are all part of the lunchtime menu. Amber’s favorite is the Reuben made with house-made, slow-roasted corned beef, melted swiss, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing served on marble rye bread. Kiley is drawn more toward the “Mary Lou’s Salad,” which includes mixed greens, grilled chicken, red grapes, apples, pecans, blue cheese and a citrus vinaigrette, with a blackened salmon version available for an additional cost. Among the chef’s favorites are the “Loula’s Turkey” sandwich and “Shaun’s Chicken Tenders.” 

The turkey sandwich is served on the customer’s choice of bread and is composed of cream cheese, turkey, lettuce and tomato, and then a jalapeno huckleberry chutney. 

“It’s a nice little sandwich somebody can get, especially in the summertime we sell a ton of them. It’s got a little spice to it, but I love it when we cook it back here because it smells like Thanksgiving or Christmas,” McCollum says, adding that those holiday aromas come from cinnamon and nutmeg that go into the chutney. The chutney involves pickled jalapeno that’s added toward the end. Between the cream cheese, turkey, and other ingredients, which blunt the spice of the peppers, McCollum says the jalapenos add “just a little bit of kick.” 

As for the “Shaun’s Chicken Tenders,” their namesake explains what sets them apart from the kind of chicken strips you might order at any given bar or restaurant — the tenders at Loula’s are marinated ahead of time and then fried to order. They can be ordered on their own, with ranch or the house honey mustard dressing for dipping, but they’re also incorporated into the “Cajun Po’ Boy” sandwich that’s featured prominently on the lunch menu. 

 Amber McCollum recalls how her 45-year-old husband perfected his chicken tender recipe back when they were in their 20s, living in Missoula, well before Loula’s opened. McCollum’s roommates would go out and buy the ingredients and bring them to him just so he would cook up another batch. 

“These girls grew up here, and I’ve been here since ’99. The number of people we’ve met and everything else, I think that helps some,” McCollum says of Loula’s enduring popularity. “But we’ve built our little niche.”