HUNTINGTON — After nearly 30 years, Chili Willi's closed its doors in 2011. For much of that time, it was one of Huntington's most popular restaurants.
"It's hard if you're an independent, small business. We've been in this 'economic downturn' for four years now," owner Ron Smith explained. And they just didn't have the capital to continue, he said.
Chili Willi's opened in 1983 as a tiny, 32-seat diner on 4th Avenue, sandwiched between the Huntington Elks Lodge and what was then the Orpheum Theater (later re-named the Cinema). The restaurant quickly became known for its award-winning chili and its authentic, fresh Tex-Mex food.
In 1986, Smith moved the restaurant to a new larger location at 841 4th Avenue. It was able to seat 80 diners and was later expanded to 100 seats.
In 2005, Smith moved his popular eatery a third time to 1314 4th Ave., borrowing $1.2 million to cover the cost of the relocation. For the first time, the restaurant had its own parking lot. But that wasn't enough to attract customers who were being pinched by the recession.
In 2009, Chili Willi's filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy to restructure its debt, though it continued to operate as usual until 2011 when it closed.
For more than three decades, Smith has been the driving force behind ChiliFest, an annual celebration. The inaugural festival drew a modest crowd to Ritter Park in 1983. Today, the yearly celebration attracts as many as 20,000 people who jam the streets at downtown's Pullman Square. Cooking teams travel to Huntington from all over the East Coast to compete in the International Chili Society's West Virginia State Championship cook-off.
ChiliFest is the biggest annual fundraiser for Huntington's Ronald McDonald House. Over the years, it's raised a total of more than $500,000 for the House.
Do you enjoy the "Lost Huntington" series?
"Lost Huntington: Volume 1" is a hardcover, full-color book of some of the city's lost landmarks. The book is likely to be of interest to anyone who enjoys history and loves Huntington.
Books are $29.95 plus tax, shipping and handling. To order, visit media.herald-dispatch.com/ecom/ or call 304-526-2720.