Eating Dixon's chili sometimes as a kid gave him his power as a baseball player, former major leaguer Bob Dernier jokingly says.
One could note that Dernier, a Raytown South High School alum who lives in Kansas City, thrived more as a player being fleet afoot and hit just 23 home runs in his 10-year career in the 1980s with the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs.
But at 62 he still enjoys eating at a childhood favorite diner, still appearing to maintain his playing-days weight of about 160 pounds, and on this particular summer day he's also taking a small to-go order of chili to his mother.
Patrons like Dernier, many of them longtime regulars, have kept filing into Dixon's “Famous” Chili for 100 years, and as the Independence restaurant nears its century celebration Aug. 10, General Manager Stephen Steffes said he's seen a new generation of younger patrons develop, and the restaurant's legacy doesn't appear to be waning anytime soon.
“This is kind of a destination spot,” said Steffes, a fourth-manager of the restaurant that from the beginning has a unique take on chili. “In the last five years I've stepped up advertising, but before that it was mostly word of mouth.”
“It's non-tomato-based chili,” Steffes said. “You build your own, the base is meat and beans, and it's meant to eat as you doctor it.”
Dernier said his parents and grandparents enjoyed driving to Dixon's in Independence, which is actually the restaurant's third location but the only one remaining.
“I remember being impressed as a kid that they had Harry Truman's picture on the wall,” he said, “that a president ate here.”
Dernier said Dixon's is the type of personal favorite restaurant that, in addition to having many regulars, you want to visit when you return home after a spell, or you're reminded of it by other places when out of town.
“Maybe it's not the best chili, but I know what it tastes like, and I've got to have it,” Dernier said. “For me, Dixon's has that taste of something, in this case it's chili, that I'll always identify with home.”
Steffes' great-great-uncle Vergne Dixon served his particular chili from a streetcart before he opened his chili parlor at 15th and Olive streets in Kansas City in 1919. Steffes prepares it the same way today – slow cook it, mildly spice with the patented secret chili powder Vergne invented, strain the grease and add back some of the juice as ordered. If often comes with beans, and onions, cheese, pickles can be added.
“Our chili's so different, I don't look at it as the same type of food (compared to other chilis),” Steffes said.
Dixon's added the “Famous” part after Truman made one of his many visits during his presidency in 1952, bringing along the Secret Service. Life magazine documented the occasion. The Independence location and one at 75th and Metcalf in Overland Park came in the 1960s, and Steffes said his family opened as many as 13 locations at one point, but then started to franchise out and cut back after they realized business hadn't so much multiplied as stretched out. A Lee's Summit location, which Steffes managed, ran for seven years earlier in the 2000s, and Steffes has now managed the Independence location, which his mother owns, for six years.
The original menu included just chili and burgers, he said, hot dogs came later, and tacos and burritos found a place on the menu in the 1970s. The recipes haven't changed, though.
Steffes recalls one recent patron who said he'd been eating at Dixon's for 50 years and it hasn't changed.
“That's one of the biggest compliments you can get,” he said.
Steffes said he receives an order of 1,000 pounds of beef every week. Sometimes he prepares a little less, sometimes more, but the order is consistent. He also gets 200 pounds of onions – about 30 onions a day get sliced, depending on their size – and 10,000 taco shells weekly
All-you-can-eat tacos used to be just two days a week, but those days grew so “insane” they decided to make the offer daily, and Steffes said they haven't regretted that move.
The Royals' title seasons a few years ago gave a welcome boost that hasn't slumped nearly as much as the baseball team, Steffes said. Outside of hosting a local sports radio broadcast, he doesn't know what exactly the restaurant will do for its 100-year celebration, but there will surely be something customers can appreciate.
Says Dernier, “Any place that's been around 100 years, I mean, come on, what more can you say.”
Perhaps “Yes, onions and cheese with that.”