The chile king is a jerk.
At least, that's what his competition says. But does Roger Sanchez care?
Another semi-trailer has just arrived with a load of fresh pods from Hatch, New Mexico, and Roger wants to move it. Quick. He doesn't have time to worry about what other vendors say.
"It's three bushels for $30 or one for $18," he barks to a customer. "Hot, medium -- whatever you want."
Sanchez arrived on Federal Boulevard just four years ago and already outsells most of the longtime vendors. He's unloaded thousands of pounds of fresh peppers and gained a reputation as one cutthroat s.o.b.
"Cutthroat? Of course it's cutthroat," he growls. "It's cutthroat because I'm cutting the throat of everyone's business."
But now, as the chile season approaches its peak, he and other vendors are scrambling to meet their stiffest competition. And it's not coming from Federal Boulevard, either.
This spring, a nasty little bug named the beet leaf hopper hopped onto a chile plant some 620 miles south of Denver, took a bite and spread a nasty little virus called the "curly top." And faster than farmers could say "Raid!" chile plants throughout the Hatch Valley withered.
Then it got cold.
Then it got windy.
Then it got rainy.
Farmers woke up, surveyed their sickly, mottled and moldy plants and plowed them under. As quick as the leaf hopper itself, word spread north along the Rio Grande: This year's chile crop was going to be bad.
So bad that most farmers in Hatch would lose 50 to 75 percent of their yield. So bad that street prices would leap from $12 a sack last year to $30 in some areas. So bad that canneries such as Border Foods would have trouble mustering workers, since potential employees had assumed the meager harvest meant no work at all. So bad that thieves would slip into Hatch's fields, warehouses and loading docks to steal what good chile remained. So bad that the supply of authentic Hatch chile is expected to vanish by the end of September.
"It's the worst we've experienced in our generation," says Chris Franzoy, a third-generation Hatch chile farmer whose Young Guns company is among New Mexico's largest. "Everyone has been affected."
Everyone, he says, except the farmers in Mexico. Ever since the passage of NAFTA, trucks from Chihuahua have rumbled across the border and unloaded tons of chile produced at a fraction of what it costs their Yankee counterparts.
"Mexico has learned about our market and infiltrated the area," Franzoy says. "We've felt a lot of pressure from them. Their labor costs are two-thirds of ours, and their exports have been up. We just can't compete."
What's worse, Franzoy adds, a good portion of that Mexican chile (which is actually grown from New Mexican chile seeds) is being sold at premium prices and mislabeled as Hatch. The fraud is so bad, he says, that 25 Hatch chile farmers recently joined forces to protect their name and their product. They met with U.S. Senator Pete Domenici and drafted a list of possible remedies, such as patenting the Hatch name, slapping identification bands on gunnysacks, certifying fields and policing roadside stands.
"That's the only way the consumer will know what they're buying," Franzoy says. "We want to protect the name and reputation of Hatch chile. It's suffering and being abused, and people are losing sales because of it."
In Denver, in a parking lot at 38th Avenue and Brighton Boulevard, Lorenzo Garcia looks up at the sign for his produce stand.
"See that?" he says. "It used to say 'Hatch.' But I had to wipe it out. I had to paint it over. I had to put up '$15' instead. And it's killing me."
Because of the leaf hopper, the virus and the bad weather, Garcia's uncle, who supplies his stand with fresh pods, lost his entire chile crop in the Hatch Valley. Fortunately for Garcia, his uncle still had healthy chile fields near the village of Garfield, ten miles away from Hatch. But the problem is, Garcia can't call that chile Hatch. It's near-Hatch, but not technically Hatch. And because of that, his produce stand is hurting.
"Everyone wants to buy Hatch," he says. "Why? I have no idea. All I know is that if I had a sign that said Hatch, people would come here. And if I don't, they'll go to the place that says Hatch. Even if there really isn't Hatch there."
Garcia, who was born near Hatch and raised in El Paso and Albuquerque, opened his first chile stand in Denver seven years ago at Eighth Avenue and Kalamath. Back then, he saw vendors advertising what they called Hatch but what he knew was something else. So he announced his arrival on the scene by sewing his company's name onto the pocket of his gray-and-white pinstriped uniform: "Hatch Chile War."
And he meant it.
When he bought his first propane tanks, his first roasters, his first bushel baskets, Garcia was determined to storm the front lines of Denver's contentious chile market and bombard his competitors with low prices, variety and freshness. He thought he and his farming relatives could make a comfortable living selling just-roasted pods (and other produce) from the "Chile Capital of the World." And he thought they could squirrel away a nest egg, buy a small chile processing plant and establish a modest but profitable empire.
He was wrong.
Denver's market was even more contentious than he imagined, Garcia says. He had equipment stolen out from under him, battled vendors using unscrupulous tactics to collar customers, and was rousted by zoning officers, who forced him to move on while others were allowed to stay. "It's a war," he says. "Seriously. It's all about money. Chile has become a million-dollar industry now."
Although Garcia wasn't an altogether innocent bystander in Denver's take-no-prisoners chile campaign (some vendors have accused him of trying to fix prices, although he denies it), this city didn't see really heated competition until a certain chile king set up shop under a Hatch banner.
"It was never cutthroat until Roger came," Garcia says of Sanchez. "People used to come over and buy chile off me -- nice guys, too. A few times, we even shared a few soda pops. Then Roger came with signs saying $6 and $7 when everyone else sold for $14 or $15. It's fun for him, but he's just a vendor. He doesn't understand what it does to farmers. Everyone around there hates him."
Although his shirt still says "Hatch Chile War," Garcia can't legally market his chile that way (even though his newspaper ads imply that he has the popular peppers). A customer walks up and asks, "Do you have Hatch?"
"No," he responds glumly.
One particular vendor -- Garcia knows who he is -- is telling customers he has plenty of Hatch chiles on hand that he just picked this morning.
"But if he picked it this morning, how can it be Hatch?" Garcia asks. "Hatch isn't a type of chile, it's a place where chile is grown. If it's grown in Colorado, it ain't Hatch. If it's grown in Deming, it ain't Hatch. If it's grown in Pueblo, it ain't Hatch. Hatch is grown in Hatch. If I were you, I'd be skeptical the next time I bought chile."
While there have been bad years before -- such as 1995, when the dreaded leaf hopper also visited -- the current one-two punch of the diseased bug and the flood of Mexican chile has knocked Garcia to the canvas.
Last year his family finally saved enough money to buy Denver's U & H chile production company (which was owned by Sanchez). With this year's crop, they hoped to launch the enterprise they'd long dreamed about. Now they just want to move the chile they have.
"Are we winning the war?" he asks. "No. We're losing. I feel like saying -- and pardon my language -- screw it. I told the family in Hatch that we've got an asshole up here, so why bother? We might as well go into pecans. Most people probably don't care where their chile really comes from, anyway. All they care about is if it says Hatch, even if it isn't. If people want to buy Deming chile and think it's Hatch, why fight it? To tell you the truth, I don't think I have any more fight left in me."
Across town on Federal Boulevard, Christina Cushere says she's felt the shortage -- and she doesn't even sell Hatch chile.
Two years ago, she and her crew took over from a vendor who'd sold Pueblo peppers -- and only Pueblo peppers -- from the parking lot of what is now Cushere's auto-detailing shop at 1251 Federal. The vendor had been selling Pueblo chiles for 35 years; Cushere has no plans to change that tradition.
Although she describes the Hatch chile shortage as "hype," the leaf-hopper has taken a small bite from her pocketbook. As more New Mexicans head north to fill their sacks and meet the demand for good hot chile, farmers in and around Pueblo have jacked up their prices.
"Joe Farmer in Pueblo thinks he has gold now," says Cushere, who lounges with her crew at a green plastic patio table topped with a few Bud Lights. "I'm paying more than I was last year, and it's a little harder to find."
"I'm getting fifteen to twenty calls a day wanting to know when they can get my chile," says Russ Dionisio, who has farmed chile near Pueblo for 41 years and whose 75-acre crop hit the streets Labor Day weekend. "There's a bigger demand than there was last year."
Shane Milberger agrees, though he thinks advertising had something to do with it.
"The Hatch disaster has kept our prices up there," says Milberger, who farms thirty acres in Pueblo County. "It's put the scare into people."
It's also put the thief into some people, adds Cushere. Like Garcia, she knows vendors who are mislabeling their signs in order to cash in on the shortage.
"There ain't no New Mexico chile around that's real," she says. "A lot of it comes from Mexico. They tried to sell it to me, but I wouldn't have anything to do with it. How do I know it's not real? If it's Hatch chile, then why is it being farmed along I-70?"
Some desperate vendors are even sullying the Pueblo name.
"People who used to sell Hatch are now buying Pueblo and selling it as Hatch," she says. "And a lot of the Hatch stands are taking our chile and mixing in Pueblo hot to give theirs flavor. They don't have a choice. They have a bad crop."
And that, she says, is the real story out of Hatch.
"There's no shortage," she says. "Hatch is still out there. They're still picking it. It's all hyped-up, banked-up bullshit. They're just trying to raise the prices. And if you notice, a lot of white people are the ones buying Hatch, too. But the chile tastes bland. Sure, it's big and meaty, but it tastes like a bell pepper. A lot of booths are telling people that it's hot, but when customers find out it's not, they bring it back."
Leaf-hopper, Mexican chile, higher wholesale prices -- it's ultimately all good for her business, Cushere insists. No matter what happens, she plans to continue selling Pueblo's finest for $16 a bushel, which is only $1 higher than last year.
"The guy down the street has six roasters, and I'm doing the same business," she says of Sanchez. "I get people from Pueblo coming here to get chile because it's cheaper here. And you know how many license plates I see from New Mexico? I'm doing fine. I don't need New Mexico chile. Pueblo chile sells itself."
Still, she says, the antics of Sanchez, Garcia and some of the other vendors, past and present, don't make things easier.
"Those idiots are constantly at war," she says. "They're scared everyone will take business, and it's just crazy. It's a dog-eat-dog world out here."
And the biggest dog is Roger Sanchez.
On this particular morning, he's in fine form, sitting behind the cash register wearing a black T-shirt and blue jeans, crunching piñon nuts, answering two phones simultaneously, scribbling orders, sipping from a bottle of Mexican soda pop, chattering in Spanish, punching buttons on the cash register, barking orders.
"Two bushels. Hot!"
Roasters jump at his command. Stock boys appear when he snaps his fingers. And customers, whether they want to or not, even follow his brusque directives.
"Tell this reporter why you like Hatch," he tells one elderly couple.
"Tell him you like it because of the flavor."
"We like the flavor..."
"Tell him it's because it's bigger and the skin is thicker."
"Because it's bigger..."
"Tell him it's because it makes good rellenos."
"Yes. It does make good rellenos..."
At one corner of Sanchez's desk stands a box of Alka-Seltzer. At another, a can of Raid. In between, there's an opened package of tortillas, a handful of piñon nuts and a row of neatly wrapped homemade burritos.
"Wanna Pepsi?" he asks another customer. "Have one. On me."
There's no particular secret to his success, Sanchez says. In fact, it's pretty simple.
"Volume," he says. "Volume. That's the name of the game."
He buys chile by the semi-trailer and moves it fast at bargain-basement prices.
"A few years ago, when everyone else was selling for $18, I sold for $7.95," he says. "You've only got sixty or seventy days to roll it out and get enough money to survive the winter. Yesterday I sold for $18 a bushel and two for $30, and now I'm selling three bushels for $30. That's cheap. That's $10 a bushel. No one else around here can sell for that. You think people are going to drive three blocks to buy it for $15?"
On this morning, while other vendors twiddled their thumbs, Sanchez had three roasters roasting at full speed. Customers even braved one-lane bumper-to-bumper traffic to visit his stand, which also stocks grocery items from Mexico and is equipped with a spray-mist system to keep the chile fresh.
"It's so busy on the weekends, there's a line all the way around here," Sanchez says. "People stand out there in the fucking sun watching the roasters. I have to give them free pop because I feel sorry for them. We sold 250 sacks on Saturday and another 200 on Sunday. I have five roasters going. Do you know what the only thing I have time to say on the weekends is? 'Next! Can I help you? Next!'"
Sure, Sanchez has pushed other vendors off Federal Boulevard. By his estimation, about three so far this year, including the Chile Bros., who spent years cultivating Denver's taste for Hatch.
"The Chile Bros. spent all those years building up the business, and I took it from them," he says. "I don't feel bad. This is America. This is an enterprise."
And Sanchez can be quite an enterprising businessman. For instance, he pays $500 a month to park a pickup in the shopping center where the Chile Bros. used to be. In the back of the truck stands a sign saying, "Moved to 158 S. Federal," which happens to be Sanchez's address. Then, when Sanchez sold the old U & H chile plant to Garcia, he kept the phone number. So when customers call and ask for chile, he sends them his way. And a few years ago, when Garcia declared war on him, Sanchez slashed his prices to $4.95 a bushel.
"I didn't make much money that year," Sanchez says with a laugh, "but it was fun."
Even more fun, he adds, is finding success without having to resort to the classifieds, the Yellow Pages, the TV or the radio.
"I don't spend one dime on advertising," he says. "Not one dime. It's all word of mouth."
As often as not, most of the words come from his mouth.
"This is the only place in Denver where you can get Hatch chile," he says again and again to any customer who asks -- and many of them do. "And I've got a bill of lading to prove it."
And so he does.
Taped on the tarp beside the cash register are three yellow shipping receipts from Franzoy's Young Guns operation in Hatch. Franzoy suggested that Sanchez post them to clear up any confusion about the pedigree of his peppers.
"We want people to know we have Hatch," Sanchez says. "We're not just some little stand on the road with a sign that just says 'Hatch.' We have the real thing. There's proof right there."
But the best proof isn't always on paper.
"Are you from New Mexico?" a customer asks him. "Well, I'm from New Mexico, and I want New Mexico prices. How much do you want? Eighteen dollars a bushel! I used to buy them for $13! This is ridiculous. I don't want to hear it. This is highway robbery. I'm not even sure this is Hatch. When I go home, I'm going to taste it."
"We guarantee all our chile," he says. "If you don't like it, bring it back."
Such frankness isn't always appreciated. Another woman was so offended by Sanchez that she left his tent for La Conasupo grocery store a few blocks away.
"He was a jerk," she says. "I asked him if it was Hatch and he said, 'We're the only place in Denver that sells Hatch.' And I said, 'How do I know for sure?' And he said, 'Look. We're the only place that has it. We're going to run out soon. You want it or not?' And I said, 'No. Give me my money back.' The jerk. What does he think he has? A corner on the market? I hope he does run out. Then no one else will go to him."
Sanchez takes his critics in stride. He's trying to run a business, he says, not win any popularity contests.
"It's not a matter of cornering the market," he says. "How am I cornering the market? I'm just one guy selling chile. It's just a matter of being in the right place at the right time."
And he is.
As the day ends, Sanchez makes room for another truckload from Franzoy.
Sanchez is the first to admit he's fortunate to have a supplier like Franzoy, who keeps him well-stocked in Hatch. That and his own surly brand of salesmanship are all that have kept the leaf-hoppers, chile thieves and con artists at bay. But even for him, time is running out.
"In another two weeks, people will be out of luck," Sanchez says. "There will be no more Hatch. And once the chile turns red, the season's over."
When it is, he'll be ready.
"We're going to move down south and sell ristras for Christmas!" he says.
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