Photos by Sara Schafer and Jim McCarty
A step into Fred & Red’s in Joplin is a step back in time. As you enter the unassuming tan diner, you take in the classic decor, neon sign, vintage barstools and wood paneling. Then, suddenly, your senses surrender to one thought: chili.
The aroma of spices and ground beef that hit you is not from just any chili — its recipe dates back 100 years. The chili at the center of the menu and Fred & Red’s is based on a famous concoction developed by the original owners a century ago. It’s straightforward (no beans, tomatoes or onions) and addictive. Just ask owner David Schaefer.
“As soon as I could walk, my grandparents were bringing me up here,” David says. “People ask me if I ever get tired of it, but I eat here at least three times a week. I can’t stay away from it. We have people who are here four or five times a week, every week.”
Fred & Red’s is an iconic stop along Route 66. Generations of families have perched on the restaurant’s 26 seats and ordered off the simple menu with chili as the star. You can enjoy it straight, over spaghetti in the signature dish, Spaghetti Red, or on top of a three-pack of tamales.
Before we dive into the food, let’s start with a history lesson. Grover Crumbliss opened a seven-seat chili counter in 1923. Two decades later, Grover partnered with Fred Herring, moving the restaurant to its current location, which was right across the street from the grocery store that supplied the beef for his chili. The store’s butcher, William “Red” Wilcoxson, bought half of Fred’s business in 1956, officially creating Fred & Red’s.
In 1973, Fred retired and handed his apron over to Red’s son, Larry Wilcoxson (who had been working at the restaurant since age 11). Fred died in 1975 and Red retired, leaving Larry to continue the business. For nearly 40 years, Larry honored their legacy, cooking 1 ton of chili each week from his predecessors’ secret recipe.
By the early 2010s, Larry was ready to hang up his apron. He was unsuccessful in finding a buyer for the restaurant, so Fred & Red’s served him the last plate of Spaghetti Red in March 2012. For the owner and longtime waitress Chris McKeehan, this marked a day full of tears.
“I hated driving by here when we were closed,” Chris says. “When David called me and asked me to come work with him because he was reopening it — it was probably one of the best days of my life.”
The restaurant reopened on Nov. 23, 2016, with David as the owner. They modernized the kitchen, added bigger bathrooms and made the restaurant wheelchair accessible. They also added a drive-thru and to-go orders. Otherwise, the dining experience is exactly the same (they even kept the same prices from the day it closed in 2012).
“What makes Fred & Red’s special is that with change being a constant, this place doesn’t change,” David says. “This is something you can always count on being exactly the same, and that’s what I wanted when I bought it.”
Steady business returned for the new chapter of Fred & Red’s. They were happy to see familiar faces like Chris.
“I worked for Larry for 17 years, until he retired,” she says. “I’ve been working for David for seven. He was one of my regular customers, and now he is my boss — or at least he thinks he is.”
When customers arrive at Fred & Red’s, they routinely ask Chris: What should I have? “I tell them our top two sellers are Spaghetti Red and tamales,” she says. “I tell them everything’s good, so you can’t go wrong.”
Spaghetti Red is a pile of spaghetti noodles topped with chili. “It’s called chili mac in some places and chili spaghetti in others,” David says. “This is the only place it’s called Spaghetti Red, and I’m a firm believer it’s called that here because it originated at Fred and Red’s.”
Each week David makes 600 to 1,000 pounds of chili at the restaurant. After buying Fred & Red’s, he received a typed copy from 1973 of the original recipe. “Even with the recipe, it took a year to get it right,” he says. “I’m pretty proud of it now, as it tastes just like what I ate as a kid. I have made the chili healthier; it’s not as greasy as it used to be. But it’s still not a low-fat food.”
Customers can “doctor up” their chili or other entrees with a variety of toppings, says Chris: “I’ve seen them add beans, mustard, ketchup, Parmesan cheese or hot sauce.”
For Joplin resident Linda Unser, Fred & Red’s is all about nostalgia. “This is one of my favorite restaurants to come to,” she says. “We used to come here when we were kids. Everything is pretty much the same.”
Knowing Fred & Red’s is a family tradition makes Chris happy to come to work each day. “I’ve watched kids grow up in here and now they have their own children who they bring in,” she says. “You just feel like you’re at home here. We have the best customers of anyone in the world.”
David echoes that sentiment: “I never imagined when I bought the place how much I would enjoy watching people enjoy the food here.” That’s a testament that good food never goes out of style.
Fred & Red’s
Specialties: Chili, Spaghetti Red, hand-rolled tamales, burgers and hot dogs. You can order frozen chili by the brick to take home.
Price: Chili and tamale dishes from $4.45 to $13.45. Burgers and dogs from $2.95 to $7.79. Sides and desserts from $1.25 to $3.35.
Details: Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday and Sunday. Cash and credit cards accepted. Nonsmoking. Located at 1719 S. Main Street in Joplin. Contact at 417-781-5341 and www.fredandredschili.com.