If you've lived in Milwaukee for a while, the chances are pretty good that you've eaten at least one of Real Chili's two locations. On the other hand, if you're new to town -- or just crawled out from under a rock -- you should know that Real Chili's been dishing out the same recipe for more than 75 years, and this Milwaukee institution really hits the spot for lunch, dinner or a late-night breakfast.
Real Chili opened in Milwaukee in 1931, but technically speaking, the recipe goes back even further. Founder Francis Honesh worked at Chili John's in Green Bay, which opened around 1910 and is still in business. He sold the company to the Helfer family in the mid '70s, but the two stores are now run by general manager Steve Kastelic.
"We change it as little as possible," says Kastelic, who says Milwaukee had several chili parlors around town.
Now, Kastelic says he only knows of two restaurants whose main product is chili ... and they're both Real Chili. "Sometimes people take for granted just how unique it is," says Kastelic.
There's a third location in Madison, but it's a separate company run by the original owner's son. Some people call their product "Cincinnati style," but technically speaking, Real Chili predates its Ohio counterpart by at least 17 years (and much longer if you count the Green Bay recipe).
As for the Milwaukee location, it was originally in the basement of the Jesuit rectory on the Marquette University campus. It moved to 15th and Wells, and after a fire, it moved next door briefly, finally settling at 1625 W. Wells St. and 419 E. Wells St.
Kastelic says his customers come from all walks of life. Between the two stores, he says half of his business is comprised of regulars, including students, judges, doctors, professors and even vagrants, he says.
Kastelic, who started out behind the counter eight years ago, isn't sure there is a secret to the business' success, other than doing what they do very well.
"We take care of our customers," says Kastelic. "We have high-quality ingredients and a unique product.
It's a restaurant where the most popular item on the menu isn't even listed by name. Order "The Marquette," and you'll get a medium-spicy bowl of chili with spaghetti and beans. The nickname was started by a former waitress, says Kastelic. "Everyone ordered the same thing and she told them just to call it that."
As for now, Kastelic says business is steady and he doesn't have any plans to open addition locations. When the Marquette store's volume goes down in summer, it picks up at the Downtown shop.
"Our growth days are on hiatus for now," he says, "but in the future that might change."
And in this increasingly health-conscious city, no one is complaining about the nutritional value of a chili do or heaping bowl of chili with cheese and sour cream.
"We've never had a complaint or a problem or a suggestion to change," says Kastelic.
In short, it's as close to as a Milwaukee institution as they come.
The ubiquitous "Real Chili: It's Not Just For Breakfast Anymore" bumper stickers have literally been plastered all the way to the South Pole (a wall of fame graces the northeast corner of the Downtown shop). The slogan actually comes from the late '70s, says Kastelic, when the bars used to close at 4 a.m. Patrons stuck around till 7 a.m., and the legend grew from there.
And late nights still make up a big part of the business, which is reflected from the corkboard full of photos of ecstatic (and perhaps drunk) customers.
"We have boxes and boxes of those," says Kastelic. "People identify with us. They take ownership in a small way."
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.