At around 30 years old, Gary Geiser had no experience running a restaurant. But he had the right attitude for it, a family friend thought, so they drew his attention to the King’s Chef Diner, a purple castle-shaped restaurant open since the early ’50s which had gone up for sale.
“At the time, it was a small little diner. It was 1997,” Geiser said. “So you know, being almost a 30-year-old guy, I could have bought a used car, or I could have bought a little purple castle. So I went with the purple castle.”
It wasn’t expensive, he said, because it faced severe financial challenges, being “basically bankrupt” when he bought it. But Geiser’s background as a business consultant, a “troubleshooter,” prepared him for the challenge of fixing up something to find the “diamond in the rough,” he said.
Customers liked it. The restaurant expanded to a second location Downtown in 2008, and Geiser eventually opened up a production facility so that customers could take jars of the restaurant’s famous green chili home with them.
Geiser worked with the customers to perfect the recipe for green chili, making a batch every week and looking for feedback. The original recipe used a flour roux and contained meat, a more traditional, New Mexico-style green chili, he said. But during taste tests, customers were moving away from gluten and more towards more vegan, vegetarian and non-GMO options.
“So that’s those things that we took from the crowdsourcing, and really elevated our product and made changes after we did those conversations with customers, and during demos and talking with the customers at the diner also,” said Geiser. “So we really developed into a gluten-free, vegetarian farm-fresh product that’s basically farm-to-jar, you know, from where it was.”
Geiser’s Colorado Green Chili business has gone worldwide, with the chili being sold online and available in 15 countries as well as over 400 regional grocery stores.
Was the restaurant always serving the same kinds of food? The green chili?
Yeah, close to it. So they were doing breakfast and lunch type of a diner, everything was fresh-made to order. They obviously had a green chili sauce. When I bought the restaurant, everybody said, ‘Man, change the green chili,’ and I went ‘Great, what’s green chili?’ And so they would talk to me and tell me what their thoughts were as customers. And when you have such a small diner, it’s a total of 13 seats at the counter, we called it our 13-seat board of directors that was always rotating. And so we talked to those folks, they would always give us their opinion, and we kind of grew the product line based around that rotating board of directors.
What made you want to go into the production/manufacturing part of it?
Well, our green chili was really starting to take off. People were buying it, we were bottling it in a slight level at the diner, you know, nothing mass manufacturing. Then Whole Foods Market came up with their local program, and really started highlighting local companies. And so [our customers] were eating at the diner and they started talking to me [about it]. And at that point in time, we saw this great opportunity for our product line to get into the market share, into the grocery world. So we jumped all in, with not much knowledge, said ‘Sure, we’ll go for it.’ We hired a co-packer — which most people do — and that did not turn out to be a very good experience. Our first big run of green chili was terrible. And I figured if I paid somebody [$20,000] to $30,000 to screw my product up, I could probably figure that out myself and screw it up myself. So at that time I started looking into, what does it take to get into an [Food and Drug Administration]- or [United States Department of Agriculture]-type of bottling facility? And then I said OK — once again, I’m all in — jumped in and opened the FDA and USDA control facility.
So is the green chili you’re getting here the same you can find in the restaurant?
Yeah, absolutely — so you’ll have the same experience. If you’re loving the green chili at King’s Chef Diner and you want to have that same experience at home you can go to King Soopers, Natural Grocers, Whole Foods, buy right off the shelf there, pour it onto your food and you’re gonna have the exact same experience.
What’s been the biggest learning experience getting into the industry?
The biggest thing to learn in this industry, for me, was tolerance and patience, especially now after COVID, with all the supply chain issues. So we produce ready to eat foods, and acidified foods and chips, and all kinds of snack meals and everything for Fortune 100 grocery store chains under their private brand. And we distribute those to like a nine-state region. During COVID, and a little bit after COVID, we’re still in this cycle of supply chain challenges. We’ve had to change the way we think, change the way we process, and so the experience with the 20-plus years I’ve had being in the restaurant, and in the manufacturing industry of tolerance has really led me to some successfulness after COVID.
Early in the pandemic, did you guys have to shut down?
Yeah, that was a really good challenge, right? We shut down all the restaurants, because those were all mass gathering facilities. And not knowing where the disease was going, where the pandemic was going, we were taking our cues from the government and from those experts. And so we shut down all the restaurants at that point in time and we left the manufacturing facility open, because we felt very passionate that we needed to try to keep foods on the grocery store shelf. And so as grocery stores were getting raided of products, it was very important for us and our team to figure out how to keep products flowing to the consumers in Kansas and Nebraska, New Mexico. I mean, we can take care of Colorado pretty easily. But what do we do with our neighbors? How do we take care of those neighbors? And so us and the grocery store chain that we work with, we’re really passionate about trying to keep the foods moving. So those were hard, hard challenges. Being flexible with supply chains, being flexible with products, making sure they’re adhering to our policies — [those] are the hardest things, because we have a pretty high product line in regards to quality. Everything’s non-GMO, we gotta know the full sourcing — no bioengineering, basically organic material processing. So you can’t just go out to the store and get anything. We had to really work with our suppliers and our farmers to keep the products going for the country.
What do you think green chili means to the state and to the city?
I think it just means great flavor. You know, when people hear green chili, they think they’re gonna flavor up their food, they’re gonna get this great spice or something, or they’re going to take a burrito that’s a burrito and they’re going to add some green chili on it, and it’s going to be amazing. So I think when you go around Colorado … you’re gonna see green chili everywhere. It’s gonna be like ketchup, you know, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, everybody’s got a green chili.’ ... It has such a great creamy flavorful dynamic with this great flavor profile. People just love it.
What’s next for you guys?
Like we talked about earlier, we opened this facility about five, six years ago. We just got done retooling some items and really working things over in this facility during the last couple of years. We’re ready for this great expansion. You know, we’re ready to grow by 30 to 40, 50 percent at this juncture, so we’re really looking to expand, and if people have like a need, we get people reaching out to us all the time with product lines … salsas and soups and barbecue sauces, and if we can help people we will. So if there’s somebody in town that’s looking for a little bit of assistance, or something like that, we can help them with that incubator process. At this juncture, we’re looking to expand in our footprints, ready to grow. … We’re ready to do more grocery stores. We’re growing with the grocery stores every single day. More product lines, more developments. And then of course King’s Chef Diner is still growing, again, and we support that out of this facility as well.