Bob Chinn, the creator of a longtime Restaurant Row presenter in Wheeling who won local and national recognition as well as countless fans who made him one of the most profitable restaurants in the country, died at 99 years, the restaurant said. Friday.
“Today we lost a legend,” Bob Chinn’s Crab House said on his Facebook page. “It is with extremely heavy hearts that we announce the passing of our fearless leader, friend, family member – the one and only, Bob Chinn.”
“To know him was to love him, and he was known to so many. His larger-than-life personality and famous taste buds have given us 99 fantastic years of excitement, innovation and countless smiles. “
Restaurant management has referred inquiries to Chinn’s family, who have yet to comment.
Chinn was 59 and already an experienced businessman and restaurateur when he and his daughter Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau opened the restaurant that would define his legacy.
The goal was big: to operate a seafood restaurant thousands of miles from where the best fresh seafood is caught.
After about 4 years of planning and development, the restaurant opened two days before Christmas in 1982 and wowed diners. Its capacity of 175 places has increased to 650 places in just a few years. It now has 800 seats, says the restaurant’s Facebook page.
Chinn said he chose Wheeling for his restaurant because he wanted to attract customers from the city and northern suburbs, but without having to pay North Shore real estate prices.
While customer favorites like garlic rolls and mai tais are always available, much of the menu changes depending on what seafood arrives from Alaska, Hawaii, or even further afield. Restaurant staff often pick up seafood several times a day from O’Hare International Airport.
The Crab House says it employs at least a few hundred people. The staggering crowds have landed the restaurant on impressive lists over the years, such as in 2012 when Forbes declared Bob Chinn’s the nation’s most profitable restaurant after it was estimated to bring in $24 million in annual revenue, not to mention alcohol sales.
“I feel so excited about it, for me, a small businessman, to get that kind of recognition,” Chinn told the Daily Herald after the Forbes article.
Chinn attributed the restaurant’s success to the basics: offering very reasonable prices, fantastic food and great friendly service.
Chinn was born in Duluth, Minnesota on March 2, 1923, the third of seven children, according to a profile on Bob Chinn’s website. Her parents, Wai and Yung Shee Ong Chinn, immigrated from Toishan, a city in southeast China near Macau. His parents ran a restaurant in Chicago and the family lived just two blocks from Wrigley Field, which reignited Bob’s Cubs fandom.
Some careers start with a spark of inspiration. In Chinn’s case, that spark was a real fire. He opened his first restaurant, The Golden Pagoda in Evanston, using equipment his parents sold him after their restaurant was damaged by fire, says Bob Chinn’s website.
Several other restaurants followed over the decades, but none earned him as much adulation as his eponymous crab house.
The restaurant’s Facebook post announcing the news generated hundreds of comments, such as “He never failed to make us feel like a guest in his own home” and “For decades we’ve been going to Bob Chinn’s.” Many said Chinn always greeted them with a smile, and they provided anecdotes like how he handed out free mimosas to people waiting in line.
Former employees also commented.
“I spent 9 years at Chinn and made some very dear friends there,” Lisa Langfeldt posted. “You could always learn something from Bob.”