Skyline Chili: The perfect recipe for a regional brand

July 16, 2013

Ask anyone from Ohio who’s no longer living in the state about Skyline Chili and a wistful nostalgia seems to bring a smile to their face as they remember a steaming plate of spaghetti topped with uniquely spiced chili, beans, onions and a mound of grated cheese.

This is not your daddy’s Texas bowl of red.

On a recent business trip to Columbus, my colleague and I were stranded overnight by a weather-cancelled flight. Right across the street from the client’s offices was one of the 129 locations of the legendary Skyline Chili. I heard about it from a former Ohio-born co-worker many years ago, but never had the occasion to try this regional specialty.

Founded in Cincinnati in 1949 by Greek immigrant Nicholas Lambrinides, his family-run dinner Skyline Chili has grown to become a chain of restaurants that are located in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana and Florida. From its humble origins, Skyline Chili has become one of the most successful regional restaurants brands, with a customer and employee base that is more than just loyal—they’re fanatical. In 1998, Skyline Chili was sold to Fleet Equity Partners, a New England investment firm, who promised to guard the secret recipe for the chili.

So how does a regional brand grow, prosper and maintain its recipe for success when so many other local brands have lost the local flavor that made them unique when they went national or even global?

Consider other regional brands that have lost their origins. Kentucky Fried Chicken really was the brainchild of Colonel Harlan Sanders who had humble local beginnings. Today, they’re reduced to only the moniker KFC and are as far away from southern fried chicken, literally with stores in Japan and China. McDonald’s was nothing more than a single hamburger stand owned by two brothers in California whose recipe for turning out uniform burgers with a limited menu inspired milkshake mixer salesman Ray Kroc to leverage the idea into a multi-billion dollar enterprise that employs at least one in 5 people in their lifetime.

The success of Skyline chili starts with staying true to the actual recipe itself. What makes Skyline chili different is that the meat sauce itself is seasoned with spices more commonly found in Greek meat sauces, such as in moussaka. Knowing palates taste chocolate and cinnamon in Skyline’s chili.

The menu items themselves don’t deviate from what gave the brand its distinctiveness. Dubbed a “3-way,” the signature serving is an unusual combination of chili, spaghetti and freshly grated cheddar cheese. Adding beans, onions and more toppings, and it becomes a gut-busting “5-way.” You can also order one of their Cheese Coneys—what other regions call Hot Dogs—with similar toppings.

The décor is something between a fast food restaurant and the lower spectrum of casual dining. Booths and tables, or counter seating is available. Highly connected to their communities, Skyline Chili is an official sponsor of Cincinnati Reds baseball, University of Cincinnati Bearcats sports, and the Dayton Dragons.

The training of the staff, according to the incredibly friendly manager I spoke with while we were dining there, insures that patrons are treated almost like family. Winning smiles, warmth, real personal connections are the hallmark. As first timer, we were given a hospitality bag—a printed lunch sack that contained coupons, plastic bib, gift raffle card for $100, a bag of oyster crackers and their York Peppermint patty mint.

It’s all so gosh-darn hometown, Skyline Chili remains a brand that’s true to its region. Why? Because they never forget what made them who they are today.

Do you know any other regional brands that are true to their roots?

Tell us about them.

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