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Remember when Ralph & Mama’s served its famous chili? The owners are memorialized next to Johnson Street bridge.



For the best chance at getting a bowl of chili from each 7-gallon batch, patrons had to call ahead.

FOND DU LAC — Remember the days before Fond du Lac had the Johnson Street bridge and a Mexican restaurant stood in its path instead?

Ralph & Mama’s opened in 1955 on Brooke Street, helmed by Ralph and Elvira “Mama” Ruiz, and became most well-known for its chili, served only three days a week and made spicier in the winters, according to Reporter archives.

Mama Ruiz came to Fond du Lac in 1927 and worked at the Fred Rueping Leather Company with her husband Ralph for many years — though the two had originally met at a house party on Hickory Street.

They eventually went on strike for higher wages, and when they lost their jobs, they moved on to the dining industry.

The bar they had bought was known for its chili, and though Mama Ruiz hadn’t made chili before, she knew her way around vegetables and spices to keep that tradition going.

Over the years, her chili became a hot commodity, served in generous portions with crackers.

For the best chance at getting a bowl of chili from each 7-gallon batch, patrons had to call ahead.

Chili was the dish to get from Tuesdays to Thursdays, but on Saturdays, it was the authentic Mexican plates like enchiladas and tostadas.

In addition to Ralph and Mama Ruiz serving food and tending bar, their family team included their daughter Olivia, and eventually her husband, Roger Gonzalez.

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Ralph & Mama’s was open for 45 years. In 2000, when Ralph Ruiz was 95 and Mama was 90, the Johnson Street Corridor project was announced to start construction, and its crowning feature was an overpass bridge.

To complete the project, the city needed to acquire many parcels of land and remove the houses and businesses that stood on them, including Ralph & Mama’s.

At first, the family considered moving the restaurant to the corner of Forest Avenue and Military Road and reopen under the same business model it’d always had, but a few weeks after announcing the intent to move, Olivia Gonzalez announced they would instead close.

She told the Reporter at the time that while the city had been helpful in their relocation plans, she wouldn’t have been able to run the business and take care of her aging parents at the same time. By the time Ralph & Mama’s closed in the summer of 2000, she had been doing the work of all three of them.

The last day of business was July 14, and Mama Ruiz died Aug. 5 of that year. Ralph Ruiz died in March 2002.

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In August 2002, after the Johnson Street project was complete, the city planted a tree on the site of the restaurant in honor of Ralph and Mama Ruiz on the anniversary of Mama Ruiz’s death.

“We all should remember Ralph & Mama’s on Brooke Street,” Linus Doll said in a 2013 column for The Reporter. “For 45 years, that couple brought happiness to Fond du Lac in more ways than one with their Saturday Mexican meals and daytime chili that was well-liked, especially by the guys from (Giddings & Lewis). God rest their souls.”

More history: It happened this week

  • Jan. 19, 1967: Oakfield High School Band Director Joseph Schmitz was honored in a tribute from the band at the Wisconsin Association of School Boards annual convention in Milwaukee. The band provided the banquet dinner music and surprised Schmitz — who had also led the Fond du Lac Military Band, the band at the Wisconsin Home for Women and the Goodrich High School band — in honor of his 80th birthday.
  • Jan. 15, 1970: Fond du Lac Commonwealth Reporter Managing Editor William Draves listed his predictions for the future of news in its centennial year, anticipating that newspapers will change in size and content, “replete with color and filled with only the most significant news.” Other predictions included the need to adapt to “more leisure time” among readers, including an emphasis on technology, government, education and business-related news.
  • Jan. 15, 1980: The Fond du Lac School Board announced its options for budget cuts, topped by possible closures of Woodworth Middle School and Fahey Elementary School. Woodworth had favorable but “costly” student-teacher ratios, but it was the most likely to close rather than Sabish Middle School because it was closer to Theisen Middle School. However, closing either Woodworth or Fahey became unnecessary by the end of the year. Fahey stayed open until 2003.
  • Jan. 19, 1992: Brooke Industries announced its intent to build a new, larger facility on Industrial Parkway, moving out of its leased building on Brooke Street and increasing its footprint by 3,000 square feet.

Remember when …” is a bi-weekly column from Streetwise Reporter Daphne Lemke that looks back at businesses of Fond du Lac’s storied past. Tell her what you’d like to see next by emailing dlemke@gannett.com.



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