Santa Rosa’s ex-Chili King dies at age 90
By Chris Smith/THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Long before Sonoma County drew fame for pairing local-grown farm bounty with complementary wines, Jack Ingram filled the seats in his family’s north-of-Santa Rosa diner by burying everything beneath his homemade chili.
Ingram’s Chili Bowl on Old Redwood Highway was a nothin’-fancy, nobody-leaves-hungry grub stop from the day in 1951 that Ingram helped open it until 2000, when his son, Robert, accepted that the joint had run its course. Kaiser-Permanente buildings occupy the space today.
Jack Ingram died Sept. 4 in Billings, Mont. He’d moved there in retirement almost 30 years ago and drove his grandkids around in a car with personalized Montana plates identifying him as the chili king. He was 90.
“He had heart issues for a long time and they finally caught up with him,” said one of his two daughters, Donna Geney of Huntley, Mont.
Jack Harlan Ingram was born in Arizona and grew up in Oakland, where his father, Clarence, ran several truck stops specializing in chili. Jack learned the trade from his dad.
He went into the Army Air Corps in World War II and served with the 460th Bomb Group. Upon his honorable discharge in fall of 1945 he returned home to Oakland and to his family’s diners.
In 1947 he married the woman who’d share his life for nearly 63 years, Janis.
They hadn’t been married long when Jack Ingram’s father decided he’d worked a stove long ago, sold his diners and moved from the East Bay to a ranch in Kelseyville. Jack Ingram, then aged in his mid-20s, moved his young family to Lake County, too.
“I think they left the Bay Area to find themselves, and they found themselves back in the restaurant business,” said Geney, who was born in Kelseyville in 1948.
Her folks moved the family from Lake County to Santa Rosa and in 1951 opened Ingram’s Chili Bowl on Redwood Highway, then Sonoma County’s major north-south highway.
Jack Ingram made chili in a great pot and also created his own tamales and enchiladas. His daughter said he was perfectly happy standing at the stove and grill and talking with customers while he flipped eggs and hashbrowns and ladled chili.
“He liked the people,” Geney said.
She said her dad’s most popular dish was probably the El Dorado. “It was an open-faced cheeseburger covered with chili and onions, with hash browns on the side.”
For breakfast or for lunch, Geney said, “You could get anything you wanted, covered in chili.”
The construction of a modern Highway 101 took away much of the Chili Bowl’s trucker business, but drivers were replaced by police officers, white-shirt professionals, employees of the County Administration Center and other workers seeking a quick, cheap, filling meal.
Ingram and Janis retired in 1984 and moved to Billings to be closer to both of their daughters and to their Montana grandchildren. For years, the couple ventured out from Billings in a motorhome.
Their son Robert took over Ingram’s Chili Bowl and fought to sustain it through a series of shopping-center development plans that would have caused the diner to be scraped away.
One of the joint’s more memorable days came in September of 1997. Renowned fine-cuisine restaurateurs John Ash, Michael Quigley, Dan and Kathleen Berman, Mark Dierkhising and Michael Hirschberg dressed the Chili Bowl in white lineen, silver and delicate stemware for a night.
The chefs served a fine meal to boost the Ingrams’ battle to avoid being eliminated by a development plan by The Home Depot. The diner survived that threat but in June of 2000 Robert Ingram threw in the chili-stained towel.
In Montana, his parents enjoyed their retirement and grandchildren until Janis Ingram died early in 2010. Jack Ingram was still driving until just this past June.
“He died peacefully in his sleep,” said his daughter, Geney. “You can’t ask for much more than that.”
In addition to his daughter in Huntley and his son, Robert, in Yuma, Ariz., Ingram is survived by daughter Jill Port of Billings, seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
His family suggests donations in Janis Ingram’s memory to the Alzheimer’s Association, Montana Chapter, 3010 11th Ave., Billings, MT., 59101.