As baby boomers, we have seen the world change… big time! Which is why we are so happy from time to time to present a story about something that hasn’t changed. Anna Henderson, who lives in northern Virginia, wrote way back in 2001 about Fred Parker’s chili. Yes, chili. It’s a story about The Hard Times . . . In Memory Only.
Fred Parker likes to tell his customers and new friends how he made the transition from a graphic designer for the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. 30 years ago, to a chili parlor entrepreneur in Alexandria, Virginia, today. Actually, his interest in chili (better make that “love affair” for it’s far more than just an “interest”) began even earlier.
Fred first fell in love with chili in 1964 when he discovered Old Hazel’s chili parlor in downtown Washington. Hazel’s was a favorite haunt for Harry Truman and thousands of Washingtonians for nearly 40 years. Her chili reminded Fred of a family chili recipe that belonged to his Aunt Irma, who had run a little roadside diner in Gracemont, Oklahoma, in the 1930s. He was hooked.
A native of Washington’s Virginia suburbs, Fred started serving chili to his friends in his “living room turned chili parlor shrine” after Hazel died in 1971. Even though he had no restaurant experience, he had a vision: to operate a chain of chili parlors, reminiscent of legendary roadside restaurants during the Great Depression, when chili was king.
He turned his vision into reality in 1980, opening the first Hard Times Café in Alexandria. Since then, Parker has watched food concepts and restaurants come and go but he has stuck with his homey and genuine formula that has made his chili parlors landmarks everywhere they’ve gone up in the Washington, DC, area.
Today a grown-up baby boomer and one of Alexandria’s favorite sons, Parker works to boost the popularity of true gourmet chili as America’s very own authentic food. He’s an active member of Chili USA, a group that has fun lobbying on Capitol Hill to convince Congress, some day, to name chili as America’s most authentic dish.
So what do you find in a Hard Times Café? Well, old wooden floors, and on the jukebox, old western songs by Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. On the walls, pictures of an old ranch with men roping cattle, flags from western states, old cowboy movie posters, barbed wire, and the central image that reminds us of a bygone era: a little boy taking a bath in a galvanized tub. To Fred Parker, that image symbolizes the hard times of the Great Depression and the American frontier. It should. His grandfather, a ranch hand in Wyoming in the 1920s, took the photo.
In a place of honor, an old photograph of Will Rogers -– the legendary cowboy, actor, Congressman -– who said he always judged a town by the quality of its chili.
The sweet smell of different chili recipes fill the air; Texas-style, Cincinnati, vegetarian, and Terlingua chilis. And accolades line the walls. There’s even an award from legendary food critic James Beard.
Just about any day, you will find Parker developing new ways to promote chili and the whole concept of a chili parlor. The idea, he says, is to be an anti-chain, avoiding today’s trend in formula restaurants that all look alike. Parker is there, himself, personally designing each Hard Times Café to be distinctive, reflecting the uniqueness of the people and community. And to be tasty, reflecting the chili he remembers from his Aunt Irma.
Hard Rock’s another chain. Hard Times is just about chili -– genuinely American.
[Editor's note: Fred Parker asked us to remind readers that you can always purchase his famous chili mixes online. Click here.]