Without Empress, there would be no Skyline or Gold Star.

In other words, you have to have a two-way before you can get a five-way.

In 2012, Empress Chili will celebrate its 90th anniversary as the mother of all Cincinnati chilis. Empress remains a small, family-owned outfit "” still with ties to the founding brothers.

While it is acknowledged as the original Cincinnati chili, Empress has perhaps gotten lost in the sauce wars. Market kings Gold Star and Skyline became the major Cincinnati chili-slingers over the last 40 years with chain locations well beyond the region.

"We'd like to make Empress a household name again," says Jim Papakirk, the owner of Empress Chili, about his expansion plans. He talks about getting the iconic brand "back on the chili map" as the recipe that started it all.

"There is a younger generation that can't relate to Empress because they haven't seen the storefronts. But the older generation always seems to have a story about going to an Empress with their parents," says Papakirk, a business law attorney who bought Empress nearly two years ago.

Chili is big business

There are more than 200 chili parlors in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. According to a recent market study commissioned by Gold Star, the chili business has a $131.6 million annual impact on the local economy. Cincinnati chili restaurants employ 2,400 workers and 300 corporate employees.

With Gold Star and Skyline making up perhaps 95 percent of the area chili market, that leaves mom-and-pop brands, like Empress, fighting for a niche, unable to match the hefty ad budgets of the big two.

Empress has just three chili parlors in the region, including long-time locations in Alexandria and Delhi. A third, in Hartwell, is undergoing renovation. Papakirk hopes it will be a flagship company store that can be used as a model to interest other investors in an Empress franchise.

Empress is also served at nearly a dozen institutional settings including Lawrenceburg Speedway, the Beach Waterpark and community festivals. Empress can be found in frozen food departments at Remke/biggs and selected IGA stores.

Papakirk has plans to open another three Empress restaurants in the next few months and is actively looking at other sites throughout the region.

It has history

The rebuilding effort is at least made easier by the fact that Empress has a true pedigree as the original Cincinnati chili. It was the Kiradjieffs who first poured a chili-like concoction over noodles.

In 1922, Greek immigrants Tom and John Kiradjieff opened a restaurant on Vine Street between Eighth and Ninth, taking the name from their nextdoor neighbor: the Empress Burlesque Theater. The plan was to serve their native cuisine. The Kiradjieffs soon discovered there wasn't much taste for Greek food in German-dominated Cincinnati. So, it's said they spiced up a traditional Greek stew with chili powder and ground beef and served it over noodles.

Perhaps wisely, they didn't call it what it was: Americanized Greek stew. Just calling it "chili" seemed to make more sense. They also came up with the "way" concept with cheese, onions or beans.

Joe Kiradjieff, the 80-year-old son of Tom Kiradjieff, admits he's not sure how the recipe was inspired by old country cooking traditions. Joe ran Empress starting in the early "¢50s "” after his father suffered a stroke "” until he sold the company .

"I'm not sure if it's really Greek. I know over the years friends and customers would vacation in Greece and say they couldn't find anything that tasted like our chili," Joe says with a laugh. "I think my father and uncle just came up with their own thing."

Whatever the origin, the Empress success directly led to at least two other chili chains.

Greek immigrant Nicholas Sarakatsannis, who worked at Empress in the late 1920s, came up with his own spin-off recipe and opened Dixie Chili in Northern Kentucky. Another Greek immigrant, Nicholas Lambrinides, left the Empress kitchen in 1949 to open Skyline Chili in Price Hill.

Secret, still

More than eight decades later, the Empress recipe remains "secret." Of course, so do the ingredients of all the other chili purveyors in town. Most find Empress to be a little spicier than its sweeter competitors. The Empress family insists it is the same chili as one would find on Vine Street in 1922.

"There has been no tweaking, ever," insists Tracy Kiradjieff-Evans, Joe's daughter and current Empress business manager. "This is my grandfather's recipe and it's never been changed. If we changed the recipe, it would not be Empress."

And, as Papakirk puts it: "There isn't a lot of tweaking when a business has been around this long. You just jump in and explore the future opportunities "” rebranding, marketing and distribution. I think it is an appropriate time in Empress' history for a reinvention. The way I approach it is 'one customer and one community at a time.'"