GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Down the stairs, in a dimly, florescent lit basement, surrounded by concrete walls, there is a metal maroon door with a golden knob. Jim Koukios bangs it three times with an open palm, it’s as close as anyone outside of family has ever been to the secret chili recipe.
“It all happens in here,” Koukios as the smell of spices spill from the locked door. “The dungeon.”
The recipe was born from the mind of Jim’s father, Gus, a Greek immigrant who spent a lifetime in the restaurant business. When Jim opened the Red Hot Inn 35 years ago — June 18, 1984 — Gus would work in that spice room preparing the signature sauce that so many customers on the northeast side of Grand Rapids have grown to love.
There were no teaspoons or tablespoons, it was a pinch of this or two of that Jim says. His dad would put them into bags and bring them up to the kitchen for the cooks to bring to life.
“[It is] the family legacy,” Jim said with a crack of emotion behind his voice.
But when the Red Hot Inn closes its doors Friday, the legacy they made in three and a half decades extends well beyond the spice of the sauce.
“We’ve had a lot of people cry,” Koukios said as he flipped through the pages of a book customers have used to write in their fondest memories. “Just giving thanks and saying they’re going to miss us. But we’ve had a lot of people who congratulated us and wished us luck in the future.”
As the growth along the East Beltline continues, the Koukios family got an offer they couldn’t refuse. Jim says in 35 years all the big players have come asking for his corner; McDonald’s, Walgreens, etc. But it was all feelers. This offer was different and the timing worked well.
What wasn’t expected was the overwhelming response from the community. In their final week, Jim says they’ve been pumping out 20 gallons of chili a day, normally it’s 25 gallons a week. He says they cooked almost 2,500 hot dogs each day, close to the typical 3,500 weekly average. The lines have stretched into the parking lot on a daily basis with wait times reaching over an hour.
He may not be able to tell the secrets of the sauce, but Koukios has certainly shared the secrets of success; family. From the chili to the workers, to the rows of people who have filled the seats for 25 years, that’s what he’ll miss most.
“It takes a lot of hard work and effort. It takes a staff, I’ve got an amazing staff that some have been with me over 30 years,” Koukios said. “I love them and I think they love me too.”
If it’s not him they love, Koukios says the famous Red Hot Inn chili may show back up in West Michigan. How and where is the biggest secret now.