Friday, September 10, 2004

Cincinnati chili stakes its claim

By Mike Boyer
Enquirer staff writer

A four-way at Dixie Chili in Newport. Sharon Seiter, a Newport native living in Orlando, is pictured in the rear.
(Meggan Booker/The Enquirer)
Michael Youngblood moved to Newport only three months ago, but says he's already addicted to the area's signature dish: Cincinnati-style chili.

"I grew up in Madison, Ind., only an hour-and-a half away, but there's no chili (parlors),'' he said.

A carpenter for J.A. Smith Construction in Newport, Youngblood said, "The first day on the job, the guys said let's go have chili. I thought this is crazy.''

But after sampling a three-way at Dixie Chili on Monmouth Street, he said: "I liked it right off the bat.'' Now he eats chili a couple of times a week.

What: Gold Star Chili Chilifest

When: Saturday, noon-midnight, Sunday, noon-8 p.m.

Where: Court Street, between Central Avenue and Elm Street, downtown Cincinnati

Info online:

Mark up another convert to the mysterious Mediterranean stew of meat and spices served over spaghetti and topped with grated cheddar cheese and other accouterments that many hard-core chili aficionados say isn't the real thing.

Eighty-two years after Macedonian immigrant Tom Kiradjieff is credited with serving his chili over spaghetti at a small restaurant in the Empress burlesque theater, "Cincinnati-style'' chili continues to thrive.

No one knows just how much Cincinnati-style chili is consumed annually, but despite its success in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, it remains largely a local affection. Drive a couple of hours in any direction and the phenomenon fades.

"I don't know why,'' says Joe Kiradjieff, 74, Tom's son and president of Empress Food Products Co. in Woodlawn.

"There's chili all over. Everybody knows what chili is, but this concept, people don't understand.''

But no one denies this chili is big business.

Tom Allen, vice president of Skyline Chili, the largest chili chain with nearly 130 restaurants in 12 markets from Michigan to Florida, says, "Chili is very regional. We all grow up with a different idea of what chili is.''

John Sullivan, president of Gold Star Chili, says at the chain's outlet at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, "one of the biggest problems we have is to explain to consumers its (three-, four-, and five-) ways and coneys that we're all about. Not bowls of chili.''

Sullivan, who said he wasn't impressed when he first tried a three-way when he came to Cincinnati in the 1970s while working for General Foods Corp., said, "I tell new people, you have to try it three times and once you do, you're hooked.''

Ethan Becker, who took over the Joy of Cooking business from Irma and Marion Rombauer, calls Cincinnati-style chili "almost perfect fast food.'' But he admits: "People love it or they really don't.''

Becker, who prefers a four-way onion with extra cheese adds: "It's much more relaxed than other fast food. You get to sit down and be served by a waitress in probably less time than you'd spend standing in line at McDonald's.''

Allen and Gold Star's Sullivan said chili parlor dining is part of the attraction.

"You're served on china by a waitress and you can watch the food being prepared,'' said Sullivan.

It also a kind of rite of passage for many area residents.

"We have people who come from all over the city,'' says Spiros Sarakatsannis, co-owner of Dixie Chili in Newport.. "We have families who come in and say: We used to come in after football games and now we're bringing our kids in.''

Festival ahead

Saturday and Sunday the region renews its claim as a chili capital with the annual Gold Star Chilifest on Court Street in downtown Cincinnati, although Cincinnati-style chili isn't part of the competition.

"We're want to honor all types of chili,'' explains Allison Dubbs, spokeswoman for Gold Star Chili, title sponsor for the event.

A crew from the cable TV's Food Network will be in Cincinnati today to tape at Gold Star and the Chilifest for a series on American food festivals.

Sales are as closely guarded by chili parlors as their recipes, but big and small parlors say business is healthy.

Both Skyline and Mt. Washington-based Gold Star, which has 105 restaurants as well as a dozen retail products, say their business is growing.

"Business was slow during the recession, but the last year or so, it has kicked up a notch,'' said Skyline's Allen.

In the next few weeks Gold Star, started in 1965 by the Daoud family, will open a new $1.5 million commissary adjacent to its corporate office next to Lunken Airport with twice the capacity of the existing Mt. Washington kitchen.

Sarakatsannis, whose father, Nicholas, started Dixie Chili in Newport in 1929, estimates his business is up at least 10 percent from a year ago.

John Johnson, owner of Camp Washington Chili, an area institution, says he makes 60 gallons of chili a day.

"Business is very good,'' he says, "But you could always use more.''

Empress Chili, which sells frozen chili in groceries and through 11 franchised restaurants, has seen sales decline after losing restaurants in Portsmouth, Ohio and Wilder, Ky., says Kiradjieff.

But the small company is working to boost sales. The Meijer supermarket chain recently agreed to start carrying its frozen chili and Empress added a franchise in Brooksville, Ky., and hopes to add another in downtown Cincinnati by year-end.

Kiradjieff declines to provide details but it would be the first Empress outlet in downtown Cincinnati since he closed the company's Fifth Street location in 1971.

Gold Star has a dual marketing strategy, says Sullivan.

In Cincinnati, marketing emphasizes the taste of Gold Star and being a product innovator such as selling the Coney Crate: 10 to a pack.

Outside Cincinnati, where chili isn't as well known, stores offer expanded menus with hamburgers, chicken sandwiches and salads in addition to chili.

Sullivan said the chain continues to push the chili frontier, opening restaurants this year in Georgetown, Ky., and Washington Court House, Ohio.

Restaurant rivalry

Allen said Skyline, started in Price Hill in 1949 by another Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, continues to mainly seek outlets within a 100-mile radius of Cincinnati and also has expanded its menu to include salads and sandwich wraps.

Although Gold Star and Skyline are rivals, both chains say the competition is friendly.

"The more they advertise, the more we advertise,'' said Gold Star's Sullivan. "More advertising expands the chili universe.''


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