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There are lines outside the Denver area's newest Hatch chile stand, at 9400 East Hampden Avenue, and for good reason: Roasted peppers here go for 98 cents a pound, or $18.88 for a 30-pound box, a good $7 to $12 less than at the typical Federal Boulevard stand.
Why so cheap? Wal-Mart. Yes, the world's largest retailer — Always Low Prices! — entered Denver's chile wars this year and is roasting and selling New Mexico's famous Hatch chiles by the truckload on weekends at most of its 49 supercenters (which combine general merchandise with a grocery) statewide.
Hatch chiles, grown only in the Hatch valley of New Mexico, are considered by many to be the best peppers in the world. And this time of year, people from all over Colorado flock to makeshift roasting stands along Federal, Sheridan Boulevard and other west Denver thoroughfares to stock up on the heady-smelling roasted peppers. They'll buy a bushel or two and store the hot stuff in their freezers, assuring green chile, chiles rellenos and chilequiles all winter long.
10900 E. Briarwood Ave.
Centennial, CO 80112
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
It's a phenomenon that Wal-Mart has recognized for a while; the company has roasted chiles at selected stores in New Mexico, Texas, Colorado and Arizona for nearly ten years. But this August marked the first time that Wal-Mart expanded the program throughout Colorado, says Michael Stokes (no relation to the famous Colorado canned chile of the same name), manager of the Hampden Wal-Mart.
In fact, a traveling crew of roasting experts from the town of Hatch itself spent two days at the store earlier this month, training dozens of Wal-Mart employees from along the Front Range in the the art of roasting. The three-person team was provided by Young Guns Inc., the New Mexico farm that sells to Wal-Mart.
"They taught us how to find out how hot they are by opening them up and licking the stem on the inside," recalls Stokes, a Colorado resident for three years. "If you just touch your finger to the stem and then lick your finger, you lose a lot of the flavor."
Other classes given during the five hours of "intensive" training — which included PowerPoint presentations! — covered how high to turn up the propane, how long to roast the peppers, how hot to make the fire and how often to turn the peppers.
Stokes says he doesn't want to compete with west Denver chile slingers, but hopes instead to introduce more people to Hatch chiles. "People are clamoring for it," he notes. On one recent Saturday, the store, which had two roasters, sold 24 boxes of Hatch chiles weighing thirty pounds each.
And that's good news for Young Guns owner Chris Franzoy. Part of an extended, multi-generational family of pepper producers, Franzoy farms 2,000 acres of Hatch chiles around the New Mexico town of the same name and ships 12 million pounds of peppers every season (the 2007 harvest continues through mid-September).
Wal-Mart "realized it is such a specialty item and that it only originates in the town of Hatch. It's famous, and they can market that," Franzoy says. "Being the colossal giant they are, Wal-Mart wants to participate in niche markets such as this one."
Over the past few years, however, Hatch chile growers have suffered a range of misfortunes, from flooding and labor shortages to competition from Mexico and diseases like the curly-top virus. And without Wal-Mart buying peppers in bulk, Franzoy says, he wouldn't be able to make ends meet. "Our expenses are too high," he explains.
On Denver's chile row, opinions of Wal-Mart getting into the market range from mild to medium to hot.
The Chile Kingdoesn't care. "I've been here for ten years. I have repeat customers from all over — Grand Junction, even Nebraska — who drive all the way out here to this stand. I will sell ten semi-loads from this location alone," he says from his shaded easy chair.
Otherwise known as Roger Sanchez, the Chile King ("Heated Competition," September 9, 1999) runs four stands on Federal between Sixth Avenue and Hampden, and one in Brighton. He sells a bushel — what he says amounts to eighteen pounds — for $30, quite a bit more than Wal-Mart. But he also offers a two-for-one deal: 36 pounds for $30.
"Let 'em. If Wal-Mart wants to do it, that's fine. I love the competition," says Jack Martinez, who's now manning a chile stand outside his well-known restaurant, Jack-n-Grill, at 2524 Federal. Martinez's chiles don't come from Hatch; they grow in another, nearby part of New Mexico. But he likes the flavor of these peppers better than Hatch chiles.
"That's fine if they try to undersell me. I will match my chiles against theirs any day," he says of Wal-Mart. Martinez sells his chiles for $20 a bushel, $12 for half a bushel.
"I don't like it," admits Martha Breakenridge, who has run Mile High Chile near the corner of Federal and 14th Avenue for fifteen years, selling Hatch and other varieties. "They're not as experienced with the roasting as us. We know how to care for them."
Breakenridge is afraid that Wal-Mart's store at First Avenue and Wadsworth will cut into her business, and says she's frustrated that Young Guns, which also supplies her chile, is selling to Wal-Mart, which is undercutting her price of $25 a bushel.