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Who was Salt Lake’s Chili King?

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A well-known and well-liked proprietor of several Salt Lake City chili parlors in the early twentieth century, Otto E. Branning was the self-proclaimed “Chili King” of Salt Lake City.

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Otto Branning was born in 1860 in Indiana to German immigrant parents. At the young age of 13 he left the country-life of Indiana for the big city of Chicago. Here he married his wife, Lillian, and started raising his two children, Lillian and Ralph, while working various jobs, generally as a painter.

Chili is typically erroneously prescribed as Mexican in origin but it was really a dish that was born and refined in San Antonio, Texas, by Mexican immigrant women in the 1880s. These “chili queens” forged a new cuisine and business model; they would appear at dusk, build charcoal or wood fires to reheat pots of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by.

In 1893, the World’s Fair was held in Chicago and for the first time a relatively new culinary concoction, chili, was featured. One of San Antonio’s prominent “chili queens” was the proprietor of the “San Antonio Chilley Stand” and set up a booth at the Chicago's World’s Fair. Within the next several decades of chili’s world debut, chili parlors became prevalent throughout the United States.

It is not known if Otto Branning attended the 1893 World’s Fair or even if he was introduced to chili during his time in Chicago; however, soon after he and his family relocated to Salt Lake City in 1901 he established his first restaurant, a small lunch stand, and by 1903 he had moved his business to a full service chili parlor located at 17 E. 200 South in downtown Salt Lake City.

By 1906, Branning’s Chili Parlor relocated and expanded to two locations becoming the most popular chili places in all of Salt Lake City with locations at 315 S. Main Street and 36 E. 100 South.

Branning advertised nightly specials complete with “moving pictures and an orchestra” and unapologetically advertised his chili parlor as a rambunctious party place. He served chili con carne, tamales, Spanish veal stew, and limburger cheese.

By 1910 he was calling himself the “Chili King” of Salt Lake City. He became so prosperous he was able to move his family into a nice Victorian home located at 153 C Street in the Avenues neighborhood of Salt Lake City.

In April of 1910, a new extravagant hotel opened at 200 South and State Street in downtown Salt Lake City and Branning relocated one of his chili shops from Main Street to the first floor of the Hotel Semloh. There was a saloon next door on the corner that had a window in the wall that could be opened up into the chili parlor. Food could be passed from the chili parlor, if wanted, into the saloon and beer could be ordered from the saloon and consumed at the chili parlor.

1913 Branning wished to relocate to California. He rented out his house at 153 C Street and also sold his chili business at the Semloh Hotel to Sieger Springer, who in March of 1913 reorganized the business as King Chili Co. Springer advertised himself as the “Chili King” and “Successor to O. E. Branning.”

According to Springer family history, Sieger Springer and his wife Martje financed the purchase of the chili parlor by mortgaging their home located at 840 Ashton Avenue. It was a very successful business for one year; then Branning decided to come back to Salt Lake and in an underhanded manner he opened another chili parlor at 103 E. 200 South, just around the corner and only 118 feet way from the Springers. This really hurt business, so in 1914 the Springers sold the parlor in the Semloh Hotel to Ben Helput.

Helput operated Ben’s Chili Parlor at the Hotel Semloh until 1915 when he was involved in a violent altercation at the adjacent saloon and was slashed by a razor. He knew his perpetrator but did not press charges; however, immediately following the altercation he sold his chili parlor to Amasa Belnap who continued to operate it under the name of Ben’s Chili Parlor. Belnap moved to the town of Cornnie in 1917 the chili parlor at the Hotel Semloh was no more. The location became the site of several different businesses including a chauffeur office and doughnut shop. The Hotel Semloh (later known as the Belmont Hotel) was demolished in November of 1935 to make way for a "modern" one-story supermarket.

Meanwhile, in 1914, after Sieger Springer sold his business to Ben Helpert, the Springers relocated their Chili Parlor King restaurant to west of the Salt Lake Theater, at 67 E. 100 South in downtown Salt Lake City. They ran their retail business for a few years until they eventually closed their retail shop and began their wholesale business, Springer and Chili Tamale Co. They ran their business out of their home on Ashton Avenue and built a special addition at the back of the house. It was built almost completely out of reclaimed wood from the WWI-era Fort Douglas barracks.

Eventually, they demolished this house and built a new house at the front of the lot; the tamale and chili business was located on the main floor and the residential home was built above it. This house was eventually demolished to make way for Interstate-80.

Otto Branning continued to operate his chili parlor at 103 E. 200 South until he retired in 1922 and moved to Santa Monica, California. His son, Ralph Branning, stayed in Salt Lake and continued to operate Branning’s Chili parlor through the 1940s. He expanded the business by allowing the chili to be sold in various drug stores around town. In 1942, Ralph renamed the place Branning’s Chili Villa and in 1946 moved the restaurant to 163 S. State Street. Eventually Ralph also retired and the Chili Villa closed.

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