The American Chili Parlor
In the early part of the 20th century, the open range of the West was finally fenced and the railroads replaced the great cattle drives. That was when many out-of-work chuck wagon cooks moved to town and opened small restaurants that featured chili con carne, a meat and pepper stew first concocted to feed the hungry trail drive cowboys. It caught on and soon became a national favorite.
The beloved cowboy philosopher Will Rogers said he always judged a town by the quality of its chili. He liked to hang out at chili parlors where he took the pulse of the nation for his syndicated column in the 1920s.
During the Great Depression, chili parlors supplied an inexpensive and nourishing meal for millions of Americans. It was said during those hard times that chili saved more lives than the Red Cross.
Meat rationing during WWII forced the closing of many chili parlors and although many restaurants today offer chili on their menus, few authentic chili parlors remain. The mission of the Hard Times is to maintain this unique American culinary institution.
Ira Goodfellow was born in Grapevine, Texas in 1874. When he was 15 years old, his father gave him a horse, a double-barreled shot gun and a 10-dollar bill, and told him it was time to go out and seek his fortune.
Fred and Jim Parker — brothers and Hard Times Cafe's founders — knew this story because Ira Goodfellow was their grandfather. His first job was a trail drive cowboy at the Waggoner ranch near Wichita Falls, Texas. It was there that he learned how to prepare chili from a chuck wagon cook. He went on to marry and homestead in Oklahoma territory.
Irma, his oldest daughter, eventually took over the kitchen chores and it was grandpa Ira’s chili recipe she used when she opened a small roadhouse in Gracemont, Oklahoma in the late 1940s. Irma became famous for her Texas chili; customers drove the 50 miles from Oklahoma City just for a taste. Her place finally succumbed to the new interstate highway system, a fate shared by many independent eateries on the secondary roads of the country.
In the mid 1960s, Fred and Jim Parker discovered the Texas Chili Parlor of Washington, D.C. on Pennsylvania Avenue. The place only served straight chili, chili with beans, chili dogs and chili mac. That was it. Open until 3 a.m., it was a favorite hangout for cabbies, policeman, reporters and other folks working the graveyard shift. The Texas Chili Parlor also had a high-profile clientele: David Brinkley was a regular, as was President Truman.
The place was owned by two salty old ladies named Barbara Abbot and Hazel Caloway, and their chili tasted just like Fred and Jim’s Aunt Irma’s. The two women had been feuding for years and would not work together, so they each would run the place two weeks on and two weeks off. Each had a loyal customer following. Fred and Jim were in Hazel’s camp.
Eventually, Barbara and Hazel parted ways — leaving the place to Hazel. When she died in 1971, the Texas Chili Parlor went out of business. Fred kept its memory alive by turning part of his home into a chili parlor for friends and family.
In 1980 Fred and Jim decided to turn what had been a hobby into a real business and opened the first Hard Times Cafe on King Street in Old Town Alexandria, where it still operates today. Since then, hundreds of Hazel’s old customers have found us, along with a throng of new fans each year.
In 2005, USA Today named Hard Times Cafe as one of the 10 best places in the country for a bowl of chili.
“The Fastest 3 Minutes in Chili History”
Watch Hard Times Cafe co-founder Fred Parker in a legendary video shoot that has come to be known as “The Fastest 3 Minutes in Chili History.” This is our history, and we are proud of it.
Our “Kid in the Tub” logo has become famous. Many people ask where it originated. The design itself was taken from a photo (displayed in our stores) that Fred and Jim’s father took of a quiet tow-headed kid sitting in a tub back on the ranch.
The significance of this image is that the steel wash tub represents the hard times of the past while the boy represents the hope for a better tomorrow.
We have enjoyed using the Kid in the Tub to spread the good word about Hard Times Cafe in many different images.
The Hard Times Cafes are designed to recall a southern depression era chili parlor. Its design is simple and honest, making use of polished red oak and terra-cotta tile. Photographs of day-to-day western life, circa 1930, are featured on the sand textured walls.
Hollywood Western movie posters, old West magazine covers, cowboy portraits and even some television western shows are displayed in the stores. The flags of the great State of Texas as well as Ohio are displayed as a tribute to our chili roots. Steer horns and back lit silhouettes of western scenes and other architectural details are designed by Fred Parker and are in the style of Thomas Molesworth, a designer of dude ranches in the 1930's and 40's.
For a time you could find an old Wurlitzer Juke Box complete with 45 records at the Hard Times. Awhile back, that gave way to Wurlitzers with CDs, and now we even have them with MP3 technology.
That being said, Hard Times Cafe features a critically acclaimed collection of historic/classic Country & Western and Western Swing music as well as contemporary practitioners of these styles. This music has been selected because it grew up in the chili parlors and the roadhouses of this country. While on the road, many musicians found sustenance and inspiration over a bowl of chili.
The collection spans 70 years and contains songs and singers whose work has helped define that artistic style.
We are especially proud of our staff. In a business with a notoriously high turnover rate, ours is one of the lowest in the country. Some of our employees have been with us over a decade and there’s a couple that have been around for over twenty.
Sometimes a past staff member will pass through town and put in a shift just to keep in touch. We think this is because at Hard Times, there’s a deep sense of community both among staff members and between staff and guests. This feeling of “extended family” translates into friendly service from familiar faces.
If you are interested in joining the Hard Times family to earn some extra bucks or just hang out with some good people, click here.