A Young Greek Man Escaping From Turkish Guerrillas
If it wasn't for a rainstorm in Greece nearly 95 years ago, Greater Cincinnatians may have been deprived on savoring one of the lasting epicurean delights of this area.
There are a lot of other reasons, including hard work, chance and just the right taste, which have made Dixie Chili an institution of sorts for the past 75 years, but if the rain hadn't swollen a river, Nicholas Sarakatsannis might have been slain by the Turks and never cooked that first batch of chili. He was born in an area of Greece conquered by Turkey. Greek forces were liberating the region, but Turkish Guerrillas were massacring whole villages. His mother, fearing for her children, sent him and his brother to another village where she thought they would be safe. On the way the rains came, the brothers couldn't cross a river to get to the other village, and they later learned everyone there had been killed.
That's been a long time ago, and there have been more pleasant incidents to remember since -
such as a successful business career, the birth of six sons and numerous civic involvements.
Arriving in this country at age 15, with no knowledge of English, Sarakatsannis worked in a shoe factory and cotton mill in New Hampshire and, despite making only $1 a day, managed to send money home to Greece to his widowed mother.
In 1917, at age 17, he came to Cincinnati with some countrymen in search of work. He was recognized by a man who had been his father's godson in the old country and landed a job in a candy store at Fifth and Elms Streets. The employees worked from 6 AM to 11 PM daily with no days off, and denied a raise after two years. Several, including Sarakatsannis, quit en masse.
Eventually he landed a job with a candy maker in Portsmouth, Ohio, and there met some Greek immigrants, who were operating a less-than-successful hot dog stand. He took them to Cincinnati, where they obtained a better quality hotdog, and their business increased.
With $300 saved from his candy-making job, he went to Marion, Ohio, where he rented a location from President Warren Harding's brother-in-law and opened his own hot dog--or Coney Island-stand. After a few years he moved on to Mansfield, Ohio where he operated a candy store and later a restaurant called The Lark. "We worked hard and what nickels we got, we saved," Sarakatsannis says of himself and his Greek countrymen, many of whom gravitated toward the restaurant business.
In 1925 he went back to Greece to visit his mother and returned with a wife, Melanthia. They eventually had six sons: Jim, Leonidas, George, Chris, Panny, and Spiros.
In 1928 the Sarakatsannis couple, with three sons in tow went to Dayton, Ohio. Unable to find the right opportunity they moved on to Cincinnati.
Sarakatsannis said he stopped in at the Empress Chili parlor and remarked he was looking for work. "Put on an apron," replied the owner, and he was hired.
Working a split shift for many weeks, Sarakatsannis decided he could formulate his own chili recipe and find a location away from Empress so he would not compete.
He got on buses and started learning the city and ended up spotting his location in Newport, Kentucky. Located just north of Eighth Street. He opened Dixie Chili in an 8x30 foot room. Though expansions and improvements have come, this site has been the nucleus of the business ever since.
Sarakatsannis, who had perfected his own chili recipe by that time, did everything from cook to serve and often worked 18-hour days. He remembers making nine gallons of chili his first day. Rationing forced him to limit business hours during World War II, so Sarakatsannis went out and sold more than $3 million in war bonds. He was extremely proud of that.
The chili business has been good to the Sarakatsannis family, and up to more than 150 gallons a day are still prepared in the Newport Commissary. The taste has been copied but never completely equaled, and the exact recipe is the Sarakatsannis' secret.
Now, stopping at the Dixie is a family tradition in northern Kentucky. Just ask the generations of chili lovers, who have been eating there for more than 74 years. The kids, who come in to get their coneys after the Friday night game, know that grandma and grandpa did the same thing, when they were kids. College students pile into cars to make road trips in the middle of the night just to satisfy their coney cravings. And of course, the first and last thing transplanted Cincinnatians do when they come back to visit mom and pop is get their Dixie three-way fix. True chili aficionados know: the best Cincinnati-style chili in town comes from the oldest chili parlor in northern Kentucky, Dixie Chili & Deli.
Today, Dixie Chili is a thriving, family-owned and operated business run by two of Nicholas Sarakatsannis' sons - Spiros and Panny. There are three company-owned locations in Newport, Erlanger, and Covington, Kentucky, as well as a franchised restaurant in Independence, Kentucky. The Sarakatsannis family continues to serve premium chili from papa nick's secret recipe, using only lean beef chuck or loin, fresh Bermuda onions, fresh garlic, and a secret blending of spices from all over the world. Unlike the reconstituted chili in other parlors, Dixie Chili is made fresh everyday by the Sarakatsannis brothers in a government inspected, modern commissary. The Sarakatsannis recipe makes a thick chili with a spicy taste and texture, that one reviewer described as "coming together in a great symphonic chord that makes other chili seem confused and random."
Dixie Chili is served several different ways. In addition to coneys, there are various combinations offered on the menu, including the exclusive six-way, which is comprised of chili, spaghetti, beans, onions, fresh chopped garlic, and shredded aged cheddar cheese. Dixie Chili can also be used in other recipes, such as chili salad, on baked potatoes, and the famous Dixie Chili Dip.
Years ago, to better accommodate their many customers; the Sarakatsannis family expanded the Dixie Chili menu. These offerings now include lean deli sandwiches, Greek salads with homemade dressing, and a Mediterranean-style vegetarian soup, as well as other specialty soups, salads, and sandwiches made with natural grain breads from the Big Sky Bread Company.
For avid chili lovers, who want to bring a taste of Dixie Chili home, a family pack (a six or 12 pack of cans) or a Dixie Chili Survival Kit is available at any of the Dixie Chili restaurants or local grocery stores. Those out-side the region can order products by telephone or mail, or through Dixie Chili's web site at www.dixiechili.com.
Although Papa Nick didn't invent what is now called Cincinnati style chili, people who know chili believe he perfected it. Dixie Chili & Deli proudly continues to serve his famous recipe to chili lovers throughout the greater Cincinnati area, and will continue to do so for generations to come.