Donielle Gonzales fondly remembers the days when, as an ambassador for the Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, she attended ribbon cuttings and other ceremonies wearing a scarf, necklace and earrings adorned with the likenesses of Pueblo chiles.
Now she’s the chamber’s tourism director and also executive director of the Pueblo Chile Growers Association.
“From a chamber and tourism standpoint, chile is huge for us,” Gonzales said. “From a community standpoint, it’s part of who we are.”
Rep. Daneya Esgar agrees wholeheartedly.
“As a Pueblo native, chiles go back to my childhood,” she said. “It’s absolutely my favorite food. We make a pot of green chile every week at my house.”
The city and county have long been known for their unique product, and that was highlighted even more with the inception of the annual Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival in 1994. This year’s festival is Sept. 22-24 in the Union Avenue Historic District.
“I always connect fall with roasting chiles and having that smell in the air,” Esgar said. “The festival is a unique way to showcase the hard work of so many people and give recognition to the farmers.”
Rod Slyhoff, president and CEO of the chamber since 1994, helped start the festival and said he has a T-shirt from nearly all of them. For Puebloans, the festival and the Colorado State Fair are both big deals, he said.
Gov. John Hickenlooper even declared the second Saturday of the state fair as Pueblo Chile Day.
“Chiles are an important commodity for Pueblo,” Slyhoff said, “although our biggest production crop in Pueblo County is pumpkins.”
Still, it’s chiles that people associate with Pueblo.
“It’s big, and it’s gotten bigger as we’ve used chiles for our brand for tourism,” Slyhoff said.
That goes back to 2015 when the first-ever Pueblo Chile Day seemed to take over the state fair and helped kick off the branding campaign that was made possible by a $144,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture Specialty Crops Block Grant. The grant was obtained by the Pueblo County Economic Development & Geographic Information Systems Department.
Hotter, bigger, meatier
“Pueblo chiles are grown with Rocky Mountain water and Colorado sunshine,” said Chris Markuson, Pueblo County’s director of economic development & GIS, in 2015. “Our cool nights and hot days make Pueblo chiles hotter, bigger and meatier, which makes them superior for roasting.”
The main variety of pepper that Pueblo farmers grow is the Mirasol Mosco chile, which grows with its tip pointing upward toward the sun.
“Those are unique to Pueblo,” Slyhoff said. “People talk about Hatch chiles from New Mexico, but there is no specific Hatch chile. It just means it’s from that area and those are usually Anaheims or Big Jims, which we grow here also. We grow about 12 varieties around here, but the Pueblo chile is unique.”
The branding campaign that began two years ago officially trademarked the Pueblo chile and determined that it would be sold under a common, unified brand. The campaign includes a logo and artwork that is featured on billboards, road signage and product packaging.
The branding campaign produced an overall economic impact of $1.54 million in 2017, Markuson said in an email. He said the overall economic impact of Pueblo chile sales in 2017 is $8.5 million.
Chiles even helped bring a new business to Pueblo as Jojo’s Sriracha moved from Denver two months ago. Company owner Jolene Collins decided to move after seeing the Pueblo Chile Growers Association branding campaign, as well as the growth opportunities and the county’s support for small businesses through its Economic Development Department.
Gonzales said a short-term goal of forming the association was to draw more business to the farm stands and give them more visibility in the community, on social media and on websites for the city, county and the chamber.
“A long-term goal is to market better to the rest of the state and nationally,” Gonzales said, “like they did for Vidalia [Georgia] onions.”
Pueblo chile grower Shane Milberger, owner of Milberger Farms out on the Mesa, saw an immediate benefit of the association’s cooperative effort in 2015 when he signed a contract with Whole Foods to sell 125,000 pounds of Pueblo chile in the chain’s stores in Colorado, Kansas, Idaho and Utah.
The branding campaign continued when Esgar presented legislation to the Colorado House of Representatives to create a Pueblo chile license plate.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone knows that Pueblo chile is Colorado’s chile,” Esgar said.
The idea sprung from a conversation Esgar had with former Pueblo County Commissioner Buffie McFadyen.
“The chile folks got the [3,000] petition signatures, and I just carried the legislation,” Esgar said. “Gov. Hickenlooper signed the bill, but the plates won’t be available until September 2018.”
Gonzales moved to Pueblo at age 2 and said her mother, who is from Wisconsin, wasn’t familiar with Pueblo chiles but quickly learned from neighbors after relocating there.
“My mom wasn’t used to anything spicy when she moved here,” Gonzales said. “When her family visited here, they learned to crave Pueblo chile and would take it home with them.”
Gonzales said she puts chile in many dishes.
“I keep Pueblo chile in my kitchen as a staple,” she said. “I put it on eggs, sandwiches, hamburgers, steak. It’s great with cream cheese on a burger. I make green chile stew all the time.”
Esgar said she’s even eaten it with ice cream.
“I love it with dark chocolate,” Esgar said. “I put chopped green chiles on any sandwich and put it in spaghetti sauce to give it a kick. Pizza is a must. My favorite is to make chile rellenos with green chiles on top -— that’s my birthday meal.”
Pueblo County Community Information Manager Paris Carmichael said she even likes Pueblo chile with biscuits and gravy, baked potatoes and macaroni and cheese.
Slyhoff, who noted that people will buy chiles by the bushel and freeze them to use year-round, said there is even a Pueblo chile beer.
“I enjoy Pueblo chile several ways,” Slyhoff said. “One of my favorites is to dice it, add olive oil and garlic salt and eat it on crackers or tortilla chips.”