WowWow Chili’s Mark and Toni Groth at a chili cook-off in Bonanza, Oregon, in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Mark and Toni Groth)

The Chiliheads of Sacramento

National chili competitions are the spice of life for Capital Region retirees — including the founders of Jimboy’s

Back Web Only Mar 15, 2024 By Helen Harlan

Americans dig chili, whether on a dog at the ball game, a Frito pie as they tailgate or just in a simple bowl with chopped onions and grated cheese. We dig it so much that 125 million of us — nearly 40 percent of the population — consumed it in canned or ready-made form in 2020, according to Statistica. Mark Groth, 64, a retired PG&E meter reader and accounting clerk, isn’t one of those millions.

“I don’t care what they have on the shelf,” Groth says. “I’m going to make my own.”

Mark and Toni Groth have been married for 19 years and live in south Sacramento. Toni, 62, was a Kaiser nurse recruiter for 34 years. Since 2011 they have been “chiliheads,” which means they travel around the country competing in chili cook-offs, although sometimes Toni doesn’t use the term chilihead.

“I don’t call us chiliheads,” Toni says. “We’re like a biker gang, but we make chili.” 

The Groths called their team “WowWow Chili,” after a nickname for their dog Sunny, a terrier mix, who passed away in 2018. They have won dozens of awards, which occupy a display case in their kitchen. Toni started a scrapbook to keep up with their chili adventures but ran out of room.

Kathy Hipskind won WCCC in Las Vegas in 2004. (Photo courtesy of International Chili Society)

Mark placed fourth at the World Championship Chili Cook-off twice in the last five years. The two wins mark the highest honors either of the Groths has achieved so far. They’ve lost count of how many times they’ve cooked — Toni says it’s over 50 for sure.

WCCC, called “World’s” by insiders, is sanctioned and run by ICS, the International Chili Society. ICS was founded in Terlingua, Texas, by race car impresario Caroll Shelby and a bunch of fellow chiliheads in 1967. The Groths joined ICS in 2016. “We joined because it gives you a trail to follow, to compete, to qualify for World’s,” Toni says. 

Mark smiles broadly under his bushy gray mustache when asked if it’s his absolute intention to win first place at WCCC and one of the $15,000 prizes that comes with it. “Hell yeah,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.

Although the Groths both agree that the ICS sponsors, which include Bush’s Best, Spice Islands and Swanson, are on the lookout for the next great sellable chili, they are not in it to get rich quick.

“We’re not going to make money on this,” Toni says. “It’s an expensive hobby that gives you the ups and downs and the highs and lows every time.”

In 2023, Toni estimates they spent 12 days cooking, the scene’s inside-baseball term for “competing,” at $300 a day for expenses that include gas, lodging and, of course, ingredients. In turn, they won $1,200 in prizes for the same year.

Mark Groth says the big outlay is the meat, tri-tip for his Homestyle and pork tenderloin for Toni’s Chili Verde. Toni says the beans add up too. “Thank God for Walmart,” Mark says.

Mark Groth holds one of the Groth’s many chili cook-off awards. (Photo by Helen Harlan)

When Mark won fourth place at World’s, first in 2019 in Ankeny, Iowa, and then again in 2022 in Myrtle Beach, North Carolina, he cooked homestyle. Homestyle is one of the four chili categories up for grabs at most ICS cook-offs and also includes traditional red, chili verde and veggie. 

Beans are not allowed in traditional red or chili verde. Beans are required in homestyle and “should be visible in every spoonful.” They are allowed and optional in Veggie. Garnishes are not allowed at all and result in a disqualification. All the rules of ICS cook-offs are outlined in their nine-page Official ICS Judging and Scorekeeping Procedures

ICS says that their mission is to “continuously improve and enjoy chili while raising money for charities” and that, to date, close to $100 million has been raised. 

“Entry fees are most likely used for prize money. The charity money is usually raised from the selling of tasting tickets/gate fees. Sponsors often do put up the prize money,” writes ICS Manager Vicki Marnick over email. “It’s so hard to say just how things are raised. Each cook-off is run so differently.” 

But it’s not the money, spent or won, but rather the “biker gang” they’ve ridden with that keeps the Groths coming back to cook.

“The thing that hooked me personally is, yes, we are all competing against each other, but we’re all helping each other. If someone needs an ingredient we give it to them,” Mark says. “If someone asks an opinion, like ‘What do you think my chili needs?’ we tell each other.”

The Groths have no intention of slowing down soon. “When we stop having fun, we’re going to stop,” Toni says.

Elk Grove’s Red Door Antiques owners Kathy and Dave Hipskind are also local chiliheads. They met the Groths at a cook-off hosted by the Hipkinds at Red Door in 2011. The couples became fast friends and have been milling around the scene ever since.

“The Groths are really good chefs. They make really good red, and their green is great too,” Dave, 71, says. And Dave would know — he stopped competing in 2017 and now judges exclusively. Kathy, 72, is also on the other side of the table. She retired from cooking in 2006 and is now a scorekeeper. 

The Hipskinds have been married 52 years and are part of the ICS “Couples Club,” which means they have both won World’s. Kathy won in Las Vegas in 2004; he won in Reno in 2015. Both times they took home $25,000, each, for their “Dago Red’s Wop’n Good Chili,” inspired by Kathy’s Italian heritage. Kathy gets goosebumps talking about her win, remembering being shocked that “They called my name?”

Dave Hipskind displays the 2015 trophy in Reno. (Photo courtesy of International Chili Society)

The Hipskinds estimate that they’ve spent over three times the $50,000-plus they’ve won in their four decades of cook-offs. The Groths think that they’ve spent well over $25,000 since they hit the scene. Both couples say it’s been worth it. “It’s just been an amazing adventure for us,” Kathy says. 

Dave Hipskind goes so far as to caution young folks who get into the chili cook-off scene because they see dollar signs in their future. 

“They’re missing the point, the whole idea. If you want to do that, go become a professional gambler. You’re not going to get rich doing what we’re doing,” Dave says.

When asked where to go in Sac for a great bowl of chili, both the Hipskinds and the Groths drew blanks. “We just make it ourselves,” Mark says.

Lucky for us Sac folks who aren’t seasoned (pun intended) chili cooks, that’s going to change very soon. Jimboy’s Tacos is putting chili back on the menu March 21-May 6, inspired by a family recipe over four decades old. 

Margo and J.R. Knudson, founders of Jimboy’s and its signature parmesan-crusted taco, were huge in the ICS cook-off scene. They joined in 1983, shortly after they both retired from Jimboy’s.

“They were hooked. They loved doing it,” says Karen Freeman, Margo and J.R.’s daughter and president of Jimboy’s Tacos Inc. “They loved the people.”

People like the Hipskinds, who met the Knudsons in 1983 at a Newcastle cook-off, when showmanship was a big deal in the scene.

“J.R. had J.R.’s girls there in white pants and red shirts. They would sing and dance,” Dave says. 

Karen says her dad had a schtick. “He had this little oil rig he would put up in front of his chili stand, and he called it ‘J.R.’s Rough and Ready Chili Company.’”

Erik Freeman, Karen’s son and CEO of Jimboy’s North America, grew up with his grandparents’ chili. “As a kid, my grandparents would go to chili competitions. Usually, there weren’t a lot of leftovers. If they ever did have leftovers, it was a real treat for the grandkids,” he says.

Jimboy’s J.R. Knudson won WCCC in 2006 at age 90 in Omaha, Nebraska, as Margo Knudson holds the trophy. Left to right: ICS President Carol Hancock, Margo Knudson, unknown, J.R. Knudson, Chief Judge Fred Weiland. (Photo courtesy of Karen Freeman)

Like the Hipskinds, Margo and J.R. were also part of the ICS Couples Club. Margo won World’s in 1987 at Tropico Gold Mine in Rosamond, California. J.R. won in 2006, at age 90, in Omaha, Nebraska. He was the oldest person, at the time, to take home a top prize.

“My dad cooked his last competitive bowl of chili two weeks before he died,” Karen says. J.R. passed in 2011 at age 95. Margo joined him in 2019 at age 98.

Both Margo and J.R. won World’s with their take on Homestyle, which Margo learned from her father, James Thomas. It’s this Homestyle flavor legacy that the current Jimboy’s generations have finally recreated for their customers, and it can be ordered as a bowl of chili, a chili cheese burrito or a chili cheese El Gordo taco. It can also be added to any menu item, like on the nachos, fries or taco burger, according to Dina Guillen, director of marketing for Jimboy’s North America.

Erik says there is no strategy or planning as to why they are rolling out chili now, but that it just took a lot longer to finalize the recipe than they thought it would. It’s a complete coincidence that the roll-out is happening on Jimboy’s 70th anniversary, he claims.

“It’s a very difficult and labor-intensive recipe to make. Just because you have the recipe doesn’t mean that you’re going to get the flavor correct,” Erik says. “My mom figured it out.”

And now, lucky for all of those who like to eat chili but can’t really find the time to make it, we can head to our local Jimboy’s for a taste of Sac chilihead gold. 

“It’s something we’re really proud of,” Erik says. “This is a piece of family history.”

Correction March 15, 2024: A previous version of this article misstated the date Mark and Toni Groth joined ICS. It was 2016, not 2006. 

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