I don't quite remember how I happened to find out about Chili John's, a chili parlor that has been in business for over 100 years in the Green Bay area. I thought that if a chili place can stay in business that long, they probably had some pretty solid chili. I went into Chili John's to try a couple chili dogs on a recent visit to Green Bay.
John Isaac was a Lithuanian immigrant who ended up in Green Bay in 1879. A few years later he started to work as a cook at a bar in Green Bay and began to serve up what he called his Southwestern chili. The chili was similar to what we call Cincinnati-style chili with spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and allspice mixed in the chili along with chocolate.
The chili became very popular with the citizens of Green Bay and John Isaac was convinced to open his own place. In 1913, he found a small building next to the Main St. Bridge in downtown Green Bay and put a sign on the front of the place that simply read "Chili". People who continued to enjoy John Isaac's chili dubbed him as "Chili John" and the name stuck and eventually became the name of his little stand. Chili John's was open six days a week - they were closed on Friday's because of the Vatican's edict on "meatless Friday's" and a large number of Green Bay's residents were conservative Catholics.
As time went on, the business outgrew its space not once, not twice, but three times. Each time, John Isaac relocated his chili shop along Main Street in downtown Green Bay. The third incarnation of Chili John's featured the longest counter in town.
Pictured right - "Chili" John Issac
In the mid-40's, John Isaac's health began to fail and he passed away in 1947 just before the business was to move to a new location. His wife continued to own the business, but her daughter, Lillian, was the one who ran the place. Lillian became the sole owner of Chili John's upon her mother's death in the early 60's and the first thing she implemented was a new day off - Sunday. With the Catholic Church's loosening of the "meatless Friday" restrictions, Lillian decided to close on Sunday's to give the employees at least one day off on the weekends.
Lillian continued to run the business until she decided around 1970 that she wanted to step away from the place. She immediately asked her brother, Ernie - who had moved to California to start his own Chili John's in 1946 (the Chili John's in Burbank is still there today) - and her five sisters if anyone would like to take over the business. Her sister, Dorothy Hoehne, and her husband, Harry, ran a seasonal hamburger stand in Egg Harbor, WI called Harry's Hamburger Stand. Harry Hoehne was a school teacher at a local Catholic high school and he thought that he and his wife could take over Chili John's and not have it interfere with his teaching duties. The Hoehne's took over Chili John's in the early 70's and their son, Dan, began to work in the place soon after. Dan Hoehne is still involved as the owner of Chili John's which is now located in a small strip mall near the corners of S. Military Ave. and W. Mason St. in Green Bay. (see map)
I got into Chili John's just before the noon time rush one weekday after I had just left one of my dealers just down the road. The interior of the place looked, well, like a chili parlor. Antique-style parlor lights hung from the ceiling. Parlor chairs and tables were placed along the walls. They had a long counter on the opposite side of the dining area. The counter is where I parked myself and I was given a menu when I sat down.
The chili served at Chili John's is the exact same recipe that John Isaac came up with over 100 years ago. The recipe has been passed down through the family and possibly less than a dozen people have ever known the exact recipe. The meaty beef chili is served with or without beans, and in four levels of spiciness - mild, medium, hot, and extra hot. You can get the chili served on top of spaghetti - ala Cincinnati-style with oyster crackers - and you can get the chili topped with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, jalapenos and/or chopped onions.
I saw on the menu that they were touting their "famous chili dog" - a 1/4" pound all-beef hot dog covered with my choice of chili, shredded cheddar and chopped onions. I ordered up one of those thinking that if I wanted another one I could order it up after finishing the first one.
A dill pickle came with the hot dog and I got the chili without beans and "medium". It had a little bit of spiciness and I'm guessing that hot would have been possibly a little too much. The chili was tasty - I like a good Cincinnati-style chili from time to time - and the chopped red onions and the cheddar cheese went well with the chili. The chili left a greasy residue on my fingers where I had to use multiple napkins while I ate it.
But the hot dog - blaaah! It was completely overcooked. The skin was hard and shriveled making it tough to bite into. The hot dog was absolutely horrible. And that's too bad because the chili was very good. Had the hot dog been cooked properly, it would have been a very good chili dog. No, I didn't get a second one.
So, the chili at Chili John's I thought was pretty good. For a Cincinnati-style chili, it rivaled some of the better places I've tried in Cincinnati over the years. But the hot dog that was part of the chili dog was absolutely overcooked, tough and horrid. I honestly can't think that they cook their hot dogs that way all the time because the taste and texture of the hot dog detracted from the wonderful taste of the chili. I may go back to Chili John's at some point to see if the first chili dog I had there was an anomaly. But I probably won't go out of my way to do so.