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Fred Parker, co-founder of Hard Times chili chain, dies at 78

From left, Jim Parker, Chris Bright, Dan Rowe and Fred Parker at the Hard Times Cafe in Alexandria, Va.
From left, Jim Parker, Chris Bright, Dan Rowe and Fred Parker at the Hard Times Cafe in Alexandria, Va. (Juana Arias/The Washington Post)
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Fred Parker, who with his younger brother, Jim, turned a fistful of old family recipes into the Hard Times Cafe chain of chili restaurants, died April 26 at his home in Alexandria, Va. He was 78.

The cause was esophageal cancer, said his wife, Carol Christen­sen.

Mr. Parker, who fancied western attire such as a bolo tie and cowboy boots with spurs, opened the Hard Times Cafe on Old Town Alexandria’s King Street in 1980 with his brother Jim and restaurant manager Barry Thompson.

The menu featured chili inspired by the brothers’ grandfather, who they said once worked as a chuck-wagon cook in Texas; an aunt who ran a Depression-era roadhouse diner in Oklahoma; and chili from Hazel’s Texas Chili Parlor in Washington.

Fred Parker was working as a graphics designer at the National Gallery of Art in the 1970s when he began experimenting with chili recipes in the kitchen of his Alexandria home and inviting friends over for taste-tests. He left his day job in the mid-1980s to focus on the restaurant and its promotions and special events, such as organizing chili cook-offs and catering for civic groups, fundraisers and charities in the D.C. area.

The business expanded to include 16 restaurants around the metropolitan region, as well as eateries at Capital One Arena and Nationals Park.

Mr. Parker kept a 1941 Chevrolet pickup truck fitted with a large American flag and a seasonally decorated, life-size fiberglass horse parked outside the original restaurant. He regularly drove the truck in Alexandria’s annual George Washington Birthday Parade with flag-waving children sitting under the horse and a rider in Revolutionary War attire.

For 30 years, Mr. Parker played the spoons and washboard in a band called the Del Ray Desperados.

Not long after his brother died in 2014, Mr. Parker sold his interest in Hard Times Cafe. In retirement, he ran a mail-order business selling Hard Times Cafe chili spices, vinegar and hot sauces.

“Fred thought chili was a food of the people to help them get through the hard times,” his wife said.

Frederic Goodfellow Parker was born in Pensacola, Fla., on Nov. 12, 1941. His father was an Army engineer, and the family settled in the Washington area in the early 1950s. Mr. Parker graduated in 1959 from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., attended the University of Arizona and spent a summer working on a ranch in Oregon.

In addition to his wife of 36 years, of Alexandria, survivors include two sons, Jonathan Parker of New York and Ned Parker of Alexandria.

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