Knoxville Eats: While we may lack an official cuisine, local original dishes like Petros taste like our hometown

MAIN INGREDIENTS:chili, Fritos, chopped tomato, sour cream, two kinds of cheese, green onion


FUN FACT: The meat version is now made with ground chicken chili.

Dale Widmer is 52 and president of Petros Corporation now, but at age 26 he was selling Scandinavian import gifts at a booth at the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville with his brother Keith, then 22. The fair was two months old before they ran into Spokane, Wash., couple Joe and Carol Schoentrup at a vendors-only event and were invited to come by and sample the food the couple had created just to sell at the World's Fair. "They had sat around the kitchen table with some of their relatives re-working old Frito Pie recipes and coming up with a special recipe of chili," remembers Widmer.

The result was the Petroleum Belly, so named because of the energy theme of the fair, essentially chili ladled into the contents of a slit-down-the-side Frito bag and topped with cheese, sour cream, chopped tomatoes, and such. The Widmer brothers were hooked; so were fairgoers from all over the globe. "The last couple weeks people were waiting in line for an hour, an hour and a half, thinking they would not be in existence after that."

The Schoentrups did serve them a second time, though, two years later, at the 1984 World's Exhibition in New Orleans, and the Widmers were again in attendance. That's when the gift-shop managers planted the idea of taking over development of the product—the name had been mercifully shortened to Petros—east of the Mississippi. They opened their first store at West Town Mall, serving Petros from a logo-printed bag, in 1985; the Schoentrups opened their own store in Spokane in 1986.

"People were like, ‘Why are you making us eat this out of a bag?' says Widmer, so when they expanded to a second site in East Towne Mall, they opted for a "barrel"—really a cardboard bowl. A third brother, Randy, came on board in the late '80s. After a few years, the Schoentrups lost interest and eventually closed the Spokane store. The Widmers acquired the trademark and the rights nationwide, and in the intervening years have added a vegetarian Petro, with soy made to look like browned meat, several other light-but-filling entrees, and a few franchises. Today, they own five corporate stores, have six franchises in nearby areas, and are expected to roll out another phase of franchising targeting such entities as airports, sports arenas, and strip malls in coming months.

They no longer have to explain, "Why the bag?" says Widmer. "But we'll probably always have to explain, ‘What's a Petro?' And we still get purists from the Fair, asking, ‘Why can't we get them in the bags anymore?'"