Bob Chinn, founder of famed Wheeling crab house, dead at 99

His wildly popular Bob Chinn’s Crab House on Milwaukee Avenue is his legacy — as are his friendships. “If you talked to him once, it felt like you knew him,” his granddaughter said.

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Bob Chinn in the dining room of his Bob Chinn’s Crab House on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling in 1999.

Bob Chinn in the dining room of his Bob Chinn’s Crab House on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling in 1999.

Tom Cruze / Sun-Times file

Bob Chinn, whose Bob Chinn’s Crab House on Milwaukee Avenue in Wheeling brought droves of customers to the northwest suburbs and became one of the nation’s highest-grossing restaurants, died Friday at 99.

“He lived life to the fullest in every situation,” said Carly LeTourneau, Mr. Chinn’s granddaughter.

Mr. Chinn was the third of seven children and the son of Chinese immigrants. He was born in Duluth, Minnesota, and his family moved to Chicago when he was 8.

He collected empty pop bottles near Wrigley Field to earn the money on the deposits and passed out fliers for the Vogue movie theater in Uptown, he once told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Chinn started delivering Chinese food on foot at 14 and dropped out of high school to join the Army during World War II, serving for three years outside Belfast, Northern Ireland.

A “serial entrepreneur,” Mr. Chinn began opening restaurants. One of his early ventures, in Miami Beach, quickly failed, but he carried on in the Chicago suburbs.

Bob Chinn talks to customers at his restaurant in 1999.

Bob Chinn talks to customers at his restaurant in 1999.

Sun-Times file

Nothing was off the table —a Chinese takeout spot in Wilmette that also served pizza? Mr. Chinn did it. A fresh seafood restaurant in the middle of the country? That was Bob Chinn’s Crab House. Mr. Chinn opened it in Wheeling in 1982 with his daughter Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau.

“He was so passionate, it didn’t matter what it was,” Carly LeTourneau said. “If he was selling restaurant equipment or if he was selling shrimp or if he was at a racetrack betting on ponies, he did it like he didn’t care who was watching.”

The Wheeling restaurant took in $24 million a year in food sales alone and was named by Forbes magazine as the highest-grossing restaurant in the nation in 2012.

It had 700 seats and served 2,500 meals a day, flying in 3,000 pounds of fresh seafood daily.

The secret to running one of the most successful restaurants in the nation?

“The quality of the food, how people were treated, that they had fun and that everybody was like old friends when they came in,” Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau said.

And everyone was friends with Bob Chinn.

“If you talked to him once, it felt like you knew him,” said Maile LeTourneau, another of Mr. Chinn’s granddaughters. “You have no idea how many people will say to us, ‘Oh I knew Bob,’ and they met him one time. But you really did feel like you knew him because he made you feel comfortable.”

Mr. Chinn was in the restaurant seven days a week until he was 90, his family said.

When he wasn’t there, employees could expect to hear the whirring of the fax machine with a note telling them to check out an article he had read or giving directions to managers.

“We’ve got big shoes to fill, but his passion for what he did was passed onto us,” Carly LeTourneau said.

Outside of the crab house, Mr. Chinn lived spontaneously —driving his family from the horse track in Albany, New York, to Montreal once for dinner because he heard about a good barbecue spot there. Or going the opposite way to take his granddaughter to see an MTV show being filmed in Times Square.

“I don’t know how many people know, but he was hilarious,” Carly Le Tourneau said. “He had the quickest wit, even up until recently. His quick thinking, and his humor was something that made a huge impact on all of us.”

Mr. Chinn's aim was to have people “feel the excitement and the rush and the passion he had for certain things,” Carly Le Tourneau said.

“I believe in giving people an experience that stays with them,” Mr. Chinn told the Sun-Times in 1999. “And the most important thing is to have the food to do it. I’ve traveled a lot of places to see what’s out there. And I try to improve something every day of my life.”

Jean Chinn, Mr. Chinn’s wife of 62 years, died in 2016. He is survived by his brother Howard Chinn, daughter Marilyn Chinn LeTourneau, son Michael Chinn, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. His daughter Barbara Chinn died in 2014.

His family is planning a public celebration of life, with details to be posted on the restaurant's Facebook page.

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