I had an appointment to call on a dealer in Independence, MO earlier this summer and I got into town a little early to try a place that I'd wanted to go to for a long time - Dixon's Famous Chili. Always up for a good chili dog, I went there for lunch before heading to my appointment.
For a place that has been open for 96 years, Dixon's definitely has a lot of history behind it. It all started when Vergne Dixon set up a cart in downtown Kansas City in the early 1910's vending chili to workers during the day. In 1919, Dixon started his first Dixon's Chili Parlor in downtown Kansas City. It was a small place with only six stools. Most of his employees were down-on-their-luck men who Vergne Dixon gave a chance to better themselves. Dixon's Chili Parlor was known for their fast service and good food, but Vergne Dixon also had some other rules - no ketchup was allowed in the chili parlor (some customers would sneak bottles of ketchup into the place), no newspapers were allowed (he wanted customers to get in, eat, and get out making room for other customers), and no telephone was on the premises.
One of Vergne's best customers was a young budding politician by the name of Harry Truman. Truman would frequent Dixon's Chili Parlor when he was a county judge in the 20's, and after he became a U.S. Senator in the early 30's he'd still come back for chili at Dixon's. When Truman was President of the United States, he once visited Dixon's with a throng of Secret Service agents following him. Dixon's enjoyed some national press with the visit and soon thereafter Vergne Dixon changed the name of his chili parlor to Dixon's Famous Chili.
With advancing age and failing health, Vergne Dixon turned his chili joint over to his nephew, Leonard Totta. Totta expanded Dixon's Famous Chili through franchises over the next few years. The original location in downtown Kansas City closed in 1969, and by the mid-70's there were 16 different Dixon's Famous Chili locations in Missouri, Kansas and even up in Minnesota.
Interestingly, after he took over Leonard Totta rescinded the "no ketchup" policy at Dixon's Famous Chili as the menu expanded. However there was a 10 cent "fine" for people wanting to use ketchup on their chili at Dixon's. I've never really heard of ketchup on chili, but evidently it must have been a requested condiment on chili in Kansas City.
In 1985, Leonard Totta's daughter, Terri Smith, took over the ownership of Dixon's Famous Chili and today she is helped in the business by her son, Stephen. There is now only one Dixon's Famous Chili location in Kansas City - the one on East U.S. Highway 40 just east of the corner of Blue Ridge Blvd. in Independence. (see map)
The inside of Dixon's Famous Chili looks like it hasn't changed much since it first opened in the mid-60's. A white and red parquet floor has yellowed over the years, the tables and chairs are comfy and functional, and there's a number of pictures on the wall showing Dixon's over the years including a large portrait of Harry Truman looking down on the patrons.
There's a lunch counter with the grill area just behind it. Stephen Smith was back there running the kitchen area and prepping orders. I took a seat at a table near the counter and was greeted by a lady who dropped off a glass of water. The menu was on the table and it featured - of course - chili. You can order chili three ways - Juicy (with natural meat juices), Soupy (with chili bean broth) or Dry (which is just plain chili). From there, you order toppings such as onions, ketchup (it's 15 cents if you want ketchup on your chili), sour cream, cheese, pickles or a jalapeño relish - all with an upcharge above the price of the chili.
Dixon's also features "Chili Plates" where you can have your chili on top of tamales or spaghetti, or where you can get your chili with beans or with just meat. Dixon's Famous Chili also features burgers, tacos, burritos and the main reason I was there - chili dogs.
They have a regular size chili dog and a foot long version which is what I got. The foot long hot dog is skinny, sliced in half long-ways, and grilled. I had them put cheese and onions on top for an extra charge.
First of all, they have a lot of beans in their chili on their chili dogs. I took one look at this hodge-podge of chili, hot dog, beans, cheese and onions and thought there would be no way I'd be able to finish this. One the table was some yellow mustard, but it was some sort of a homemade concoction. It was sort of a cross between a spicy mustard and regular yellow mustard. I determined that I liked the taste of the mustard on the chili dog.
But it was a gut-bomb, but in a very good way. I liked the taste of the chili, although there were a lot of beans in it. For a big-assed messy chili dog it was good and fun to eat. No, I couldn't finish the whole thing, but I made a serious dent in it. Having been in business for nearly 100 years is a testament to the quality of the Dixon's chili and the generations of Kansas Citians who have grown up with it.