“If I stop,” Bob Chinn, owner of Bob Chinn’s Crab House, one of the nation’s busiest and most profitable restaurants, told Forbes 10 years ago, “the restaurant will collapse in a few years.”
When Chinn died last month at the age of 99, his granddaughter Carly Le Tourneau suspects that quote was on people’s minds. But she doesn’t think Chinn hadn’t meant it literally.
For one thing, once he turned 90, he stopped coming into the Wheeling restaurant every day. And although he never really stopped bombarding Le Tourneau, her sister Maile, and their mother Marilyn Chinn Le Tourneau with phone calls and faxes — “You could call it micromanaging,” Marilyn says drily — he did ease up slightly in his later years. By then, of course, his ways had been drilled into their brains: Marilyn had cofounded the restaurant with Chinn in 1982 and Carly and Maile had grown up there. (Their one rebellion: none of them is fond of crab legs, Chinn’s signature dish.)
Carly Le Tourneau now thinks Chinn was referring to more intangible qualities, like his ambition. “Nobody had that like he had,” she said. “I don’t think it was so much his physical presence, but if his passion and vision were to go, then the success of the restaurant would be over. But I think he was wrong. I think maybe he didn’t see what was right in front of him. Me, my mom, and my sister, we love this place just as much as he did.”
The Le Tourneau women don’t run the restaurant in the same way Chinn did. Marilyn has always been a more introverted presence, content to stay behind the scenes while her father made the rounds of the dining room, chatting up customers and teaching them the correct way to eat shrimp cocktail (with a slice of cantaloupe). Her daughters also visit the dining room, but customers don’t recognize them they way they recognized their grandfather. “It’s like, ‘Who is this strange girl?’” Carly Le Tourneau says. “There’s something that doesn’t translate.”
Bob Chinn’s has always been a family enterprise. Chinn grew up working in restaurants with his father and uncles, and Marilyn began helping his various enterprises when she was still in grammar school. Bob Chinn’s Crab House was Chinn’s 14th restaurant and he was 59 when it opened; he’d had no formal training as a restaurateur and had learned everything through trial and error — mostly error, his granddaughters say. Over the years, many family members worked there in various capacities, usually in the dining room or kitchen, though one nephew, Jimmy Chinn, ran a plant to mix and distribute the restaurant’s famous mai tais.
Chinn was always determined that things should be a certain way, and if he felt the restaurant’s reputation was being compromised in any way, he would crack down. Servers would scatter when they saw him coming in case he reprimanded them for breaking his “no CH and L-ing” rule (congregating, gossiping, and listening). He could be ruthless: in 2001, he took his nephew Jimmy to federal court when Jimmy planned to open a new restaurant called Jimmy Chinn’s Crab and Chop House in suburban Lombard. Shortly afterward, the developer canceled the deal. (Another nephew, Stanley, was allowed to continue with his own Chinn’s 34th Street restaurant in Naperville, which lasted 20 years before closing in 2020 due to the pandemic.)
“When you care about something so much that you put your name on it, you’re very protective of what happens and who uses it,” Carly Le Tourneau says.
The restaurant was not immune to scandal: In 1995, Chinn faced a lawsuit from seven female servers who accused him of sexual harassment and retaliation and demanded $2.8 million in damages. The charges were dismissed. And in 2012, the restaurant briefly closed down after more than 100 customers complained they had contracted a norovirus after eating there. But neither of these things diminished the restaurant’s popularity.
Bob Chinn’s has evolved in some ways: it has social media accounts now. And after it reopened last year after the pandemic shutdown, it got a reservation system for the first time. In the past, customers would wait in the lobby or front bar until their tables were ready. According to legend, back in 1999, one party left the restaurant and went to see the three-hour movie Titanic; when they returned, they still had to wait to be seated. But the arrangement didn’t allow for social distancing, and the management team felt it was more important to keep the customers safe.
This past January and February at the height of the omicron outbreak the restaurant took another hiatus; the Le Tourneaus used the time to do some much-needed renovations on the 100-year-old building, including a new roof and floors, and to add a computerized kitchen display system. Previously, all expediting was done by hand — even when Bob Chinn’s was one of the busiest restaurants in the country and there were thousands of orders every night. It still worked, but Carly Le Tourneau acknowledges now that the new system works better.
Chinn was adamant that he would never open multiple locations or sell franchises (though there was one short-lived experiment with a Bob Chinn’s downtown under a licensing agreement with separate owners; it ended in a lawsuit after the owners failed to pay their licensing fees). The three Le Tourneaus, too, will focus all their attention on a single restaurant in Wheeling — albeit one that seats 735 people and is still full on most weekend nights.
In order to demonstrate how committed they are, they will spend 2023 celebrating the 40th birthday of Bob Chinn’s Crab House — technically on December 24, 2022 — with a series of themed events for every month. But first: a memorial for Chinn on Monday, May 16, when the restaurant will be closed and visitors can walk through a museum of his life.
“For the three of us, it’s really important to carry on his legacy,” says Carly Le Tourneau. “I don’t think Mom thinks of herself as a restaurant owner. She’s the legacy keeper of Bob Chinn’s Crab House. It’s important for us to keep those things alive here.”
Bob Chinn Memorial at Bob Chinn’s Crab House, noon to 7:30 p.m., 393 S. Milwaukee Avenue, Wheeling.