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Santa Rosa’s ex-Chili King dies at age 90

Friday, September 23rd, 2011 | Posted by



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.

In a 1983 photo by former Press Democrat photographer Tim Baker, Jack Ingram works the grill at Ingram's Chili Bowl.

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.

  • hillcruiser

    I still can’t go to any of my Kaiser appointments on ORH without thinking of Ingram’s. Even though I don’t eat anything remotely that unhealthy anymore, I have fond memories. Nothing ever tasted as good as an El Dorado after a long run in Annadel.
    Thanks for the article, Chris.

    • Chris Smith

      Thank you! Back in the day, an Ingram’s chili cheeseburger was a treat I allowed myself about once a year. Good stuff.

  • Stephen Gale

    Some good memories and kind thoughts for the Ingram family reading this today.

    Wouild love to have one more El Dorado. May not be on Kaiser’s “approved food list” these days. But it would taste o so good !

  • Brian

    I have many fond memories of Ingram’s Chili Bowl, eating there with my dad for years, meeting buddies out there and getting great food and great conversations where almost everybody was friendly with everyone. The El Dorado was to good to describe here so I will not even try. Even to this day every time I drive back down to Santa Rosa I make sure to point out to my kids where Ingram’s used to be and tell them stories about how good that place was.

  • Michael C.

    A favorite lunch spot for many Hewlett Packard employees. Best all-time hangover ‘cure’ was a huge plate of ‘Chili Spuds’…best crunchy true hash browns smothered in Ingram’s chili. This was no secret of Bobs and never failed to satisfy!

  • Brad Potter

    I uses to meet some of my co-workers from Hewlett Packard at Ingrams for lunch. After “eggs in the red” and a beer I could hardley keep my eyes open when I’d return to work.

  • Mike M

    I spent many a year eating lunch at Ingrams … I consider it a part of the wonderment of my mis-spent youth. Many would be the time that I would venture in, order an El Dorado and 2 Buds for lunch. I will never forget the Christmas breakfast the people at HP organized sometime in the early 1980s, one of the department admins was learning how to play the harp, and she brought it, and played Christmas Carols in the back room. I can still see that truckers face as he walked by the window outside, stopped, retreated a few steps, and gawked at the harpist. He then looked up to insure he was at the right place. What memories!!!!!

  • Scott S

    The Chili Bowl was such a favorite place for me. Ever since I asked a co-worker at KFTY-50, while we were working on a video of the annual (back then) Sonoma chili cook-off. “Who has the best chili in Sonoma county?” I was surprised by his answer, it was around lunchtime and I was getting hungry watching the world class chili being prepared in the famous plaza in Sonoma.

    My co-worker looked at me like I was crazy and dismissed the world class chili artisans on video that he spent hours shooting with a wave.

    The best chili in the world is made at this little place just off the freeway if you know where to turn past Santa Rosa. It has this funky sign that says ‘Chili Bowl’ and it is like the movie ‘Mad Max’ to get parking.

    BTW, Would you please bring me back a takeout order? The guy was literally drooling.

    I found out why people loved Ingram’s Chili Bowl so much on that day. Was a regular from that point on.

    I really loved the fact they stayed open many extra days so the customers could get one last El-Dorado, I certainly drove many miles for the pleasure of eating with my friends that were clued-in.

    One of the things that stood out for me was the “Outhouse” having to walk over creaking narrow bridges to get to the toilet tended to sober you up fast if the chili didn’t do it. :)

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