Friday, October 08, 1999

Brothers celebrate Skyline Chili's 50th year


'Long way from one dinky little store'

        The days of peeling garlic, shredding cheese and cutting onions are long over. But the spirit of the work done by Skyline Chili's Lambrinides brothers endures with every ladle of chili nuzzled against a plate of spaghetti.

IT'S SKYLINE PARTY TIME
  Skyline Chili will celebrate its 50th birthday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. today on Fountain Square.
  Among the highlights: free cheese coneys, a performance by a band and a brief ceremony kicking off the Skyline Chili Neighborhood Foundation, which is dedicated to developing projects in neighborhoods where Skyline restaurants operate.
        Christie, Bill and Lambert Lambrinides worked at Cincinnati-based Skyline for 45 years before they retired in October 1994. But the brothers never let their product stray too far from their lives. They kept a 51 percent stake in the company before fully retiring and selling their shares last year.

        Even after selling their 51 percent stake in Skyline to Fleet Equity Partners, the Lambrinides brothers made sure management would remain intact. These days, each brother still eats Skyline a couple times a week.

        Today is the 50th anniversary of Skyline: the day Nicholas and Alexandra Lambrinides opened a “dinky” store in Price Hill that led to a 111-store chain. Their children, twins Bill and Christie, 71, and Lambert, 76, reunite in the Queen City today to join in the celebration.

        This week, Enquirer reporter Lisa Biank Fasig held three-way question-and-answer sessions with the brothers from their homes in Florida (Christie and Lambert) and Bridgetown (Bill).

        QUESTION: You retired five years ago. Of all your duties and ties to Skyline, which was the hardest to let go?

Bill: “It wasn't just one thing, it was the whole thing. Being in contact with people. Also the people that have been with you for years.”

        Lambert: “The entire business. But after 50 years, you feel that's enough.”

        Christie: “I would say dealing with our franchises.

        We had good relations with them and our employees and management team.”

        Q: What is your favorite Skyline dish?

        Bill: “Right now, I'm on to plain chili with onions. I used to eat four-ways a lot. When you get older you've got to watch (what you eat).”

        Lambert: “I like chili and spaghetti with onions on the side and hot sauce.”

        Christie: “A four-way and a cheese coney. I try to eat less spaghetti, but you know how it is.”

        Q: Who came up with the names and concepts for three-way, four-way and five-way?

Christie: “We did because years ago they would just say, "Chili, spaghetti with cheese.' So we said, "Three-way, four-way, five-way.' It's shorter that way.”

       

        Q: Eighteen months ago, Skyline shareholders voted to sell the company to Fleet Equity Partners after spurning offers from Meritage Hospitality Group. You owned 51 percent. Why did you make the decision?

Bill: “At our age, we figured we succeeded and it was time to call it quits as long as we can find the right buyer. Meritage just wanted to buy the brothers out and give stock and cash to the shareholders. ... (Fleet) seemed more sincere. They wanted to keep the management.”

        Lambert: “We'd been trying to sell for a long time (almost five years). I'm 76, they're 72. How long can you go? I'd like to go out and play golf.”

        Christie: “We figured it's about time, you know? Forty-five years, you say, "Well, let's do it while we can still walk and have a good time.'”

        Q: What were your feelings when it sold and all was finalized?

        Bill: “It was bittersweet. But it was for the best. We didn't change our lifestyles and we're happy.”

        Lambert: “You feel a little sad, there's no question about it.”

        Christie: “We let go of some of the responsibility. We knew we had a good management group there. We were going to carry on and that made us feel good about it.”

        Q: What is your single greatest accomplishment?

        Lambert: “To survive 50 years and have 114, 116 restaurants. To have the product in the frozen market. To have it in the canned phase.”

        Q: First Skyline was in Price Hill, in a German Catholic community that did not eat meat on Fridays. How did tangy chili on spaghetti become so successful?

        Bill: “There was a lot of indoctrination done, let's put it that way. Lent was our hardest season in those days.”

        Christie: “We didn't deviate from the quality. It's a unique product. We stuck to our guns.”

        Q: Why doesn't Skyline have the same success in other parts of the country?

        Bill: “I think it would work on the East Coast. I think there's more ethnic people.”

        Christie: “It could be, but it takes a whole lot of advertising and putting the stores up one after another.”

        Q: Skyline's best idea?

        Bill: “We served the product in front of the customer. You see it being made fresh and (the customer) gets it quick.”

        Lambert: “Going into frozen and also into the cans.”

        Q: Skyline's worst idea?

        Bill: “We tried the chili pizza. That didn't go over too well.”

        Lambert: “(Giving) it to a dodo” franchiser “who doesn't know what to do with it.”

        Q: In your 45 years with Skyline, what was the hardest thing you had to do?

        Bill: “Work hard. We used to put in some long hours in the early days — 10 to 12 hours a day.”

        Christie: “I just about enjoyed everything we did, really.”

        Q: There is only one copy of your chili recipe. Where is it?

        Lambert: “It's in a safety deposit box. (The new owner) has it now. I'm pretty sure it would be in Cincinnati.”

        Q: If you had to eat a competitor's three-way, whose would it be?

        Bill: “I wouldn't!”

        Lambert: “I only eat ours.”

        Christie: “I'd probably still make my own one way or another.”

        Q: Did you ever expect Skyline to get this big?

        Bill: “Not in the early days we didn't. But as we progressed, we could see the light.”

        Lambert: “Not really. It's a long way from one dinky little store on Glenway Avenue in Price Hill.”



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