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Networking - Bob Chinn

Owner, Bob Chinn’s Crab House, Wheeling, Ill.

By James Wright
September 01, 2012

If crab buyers were trees in a forest, Bob Chinn would be a towering sequoia. Forbes magazine recently ranked his eponymous eatery as the No. 1 grossing single-unit restaurant in the United States, at approximately $24 million in sales annually, excluding alcohol. And it’s all because of crab — king, snow, Dungeness, blue, stone, Jonah, you name it. It’s not uncommon for 3,000 pounds of seafood from around the world to arrive at the Bob Chinn’s Crab House delivery door in one day. The cargo bills are substantial and are often posted somewhere inside for guests to see. The restaurant can seat up to 700 people at a time and serves about a million guests each year. The Chicago-area establishment has been Bob’s baby for 30 years and is truly the stuff of legend. 

So is Bob himself. At 89 years of age, Chinn is still reluctant to give anyone else the keys to the car, vowing to never retire. While he spends six months a year in his beloved adopted home of Honolulu, he can’t let go of the gem he founded on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling, Ill., back in 1982: a shuttered 200-seat building that within a few years more than tripled in size. The son of Chinese immigrants who was born in Minnesota, Chinn is a proud World War II veteran who founded many food businesses but discovered a true love affair with his crustacean of choice. All of Chicagoland thanks him for it. 

Why do you say you can’t retire?  

I’ll lay a thousand to one that it’d collapse in a few years. It happens to me every time. I’m in my 15th venture now. Every one of them I had to hire someone else to run it, sell it or just give it away. None of them survived more than three and a half years and they were busy at the time. 

When I’m here I think, “Why do all the big industries go bust?” There’s nobody to hire to run the business anymore. That’s how you outcompete the competition. If you don’t do it yourself, you’re not going anywhere. I have to do things myself and keep it moving forward. You know, 90 percent [of restaurants] don’t survive three years. But everybody tells me I’m stupid, they want to do it their way. I’ve never met a person who thinks I’m smart. I have 300 people here and they all think I’m stupid. 

Why didn’t you make Bob Chinn’s into a chain? 

I have no desire to make a ton of money. If I did, I would not take six months off for pleasure for the past 60 years. Would [more money] make me any happier? 

How does the title of ‘highest grossing restaurant in the nation’ sound to you?  

Sounds very exciting. When [Forbes] called to interview me, I thought it was going to be a list of larger restaurants. I knew we were the biggest in number of people served. Instead of going for low prices, a lot of restaurants go upscale — a lot of dollars, but not as many people as we do. 

Why the fascination with Hawaii, and when did it begin?  

The first few years after I got back from the military, I decided to see America. I ended up in LA and San Diego, then I went eastbound, and ended up in Miami. I thought, “This is even better!” I spent every winter there for 10 or 11 years. Then friends said I had to try Hawaii, and I said, “That’s too far away!” But I went and I fell madly in love with everything and have been going back for 50 years. 

Did you ever think Bob Chinn’s would serve 4,000 people a day, or a million in a year? 

It never occurred to me to think about it. I’m almost 90, and I’m beginning to learn a lot more about myself than I did before. Why did I take a 250-seat [restaurant] and expand it to 700? Everyone told me I was stupid, it’ll be empty and will look terrible. It’s my instincts that told me, “Do it, do it, do it.”

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