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Hot Stuff!

Steve, Loren and Lori hang loose in the Sniagrab line.

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.

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 King doesn'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.

Allison Mueller, who was buying peppers on Federal last week after having lunch with her husband, said she plans to compare prices with those at the Wal-Mart near her Greenwood Village home. She might even try some to compare the flavor. But part of the fun of buying chile is going to the stand. "I'd rather support the small guys," she says.

The best way to compare chile stands and prices before hitting the streets is to check out www.denvergreenchile.com, a website run by Anita Edge that dabbles in all things hot, green and capsicum-related. A software/Internet specialist, Edge moved back to Denver five years ago from California and immediately saw Colorado's need for an Internet pepper presence. She is in the middle of updating her current site and may add a new recipe site, as well. "I'm taking it up a notch," she says.

With a water back: First Aspen Pure got busted for bottling water drawn from an aquifer below a potato farm ouside of Alamosa ("All Wet," January 15, 2004). Then last month, Pepsi-Cola had to fess up that although the label on Aquafina says the water is "bottled at the source P.W.S.," that actually stands for "public water source," or tap — which the next incarnation of the label will make clear. So when an Off Limits informant recently spotted a truck with the Eldorado Natural Spring Water sign pumping water from a well outside a building on National Western Drive, smack in the middle of the Denver stockyards, we had to wonder. We know that Denver Water tap water regularly places high in taste tests, and the outfit was recently praised by the Environmental Protection Agency for "forward-thinking water conservation programs" and partnerships with the city. But still, could that justify labeling moo juice as artesian water?

As it turns out, our suspicions were all wet. Yes, Eldorado has the rights to the water from that north Denver well, and yes, it was taking water out of it — but not to bottle in its plant in Eldorado Springs. Instead, the water was put into the river fed by the same artesian spring used to fill those bottles. "It's a water-rights issue," explains Jeremy Martin, Eldorado's vice president of marketing, who blessedly skips over some of the minutiae of this state's water laws. "At certain times of the year, if we're on call, we haul water up. Our spring feeds the river, and we have to put some back in."

And remember, that's downstream of the bottling plant.

Scene and herd: For just the second time in more than thirty years, a passenger train from Denver pulled into the Pueblo Union Depot this past Saturday: the Colorado State Fair Express. And it was hard to tell who was more delighted by the sight — the passengers who'd hopped on board the train at Denver's Union Station; all the train nuts who lined the side of the tracks just to get a sight of 3985, the famed Union Pacific steam locomotive; or the hardy Pueblo residents who'd dug out from a major hailstorm two days earlier to welcome the visitors. The crowd that greeted the train back in Denver was considerably more surly, if a very surreal sight in this long-train-starved city: hundreds of Bronco fans who'd seen their team lose, then had to wait in a long line for light rail. All aboard!

And speaking of waiting, the lines are growing outside the Sports Authority at Tenth Avenue and Broadway, where Sniagrab kicks off this week. By Tuesday morning, a string of tents stretched halfway up Tenth. Why? Off Limits investigates.

This is the seventh year in a row for Joe, who calls himself a "crazy Scotsman" and was lounging on a tattered loveseat next to his buddy Sven, watching a TV they'd set up on a cooler. What "half of these idiots don't realize," Joe says, pointing to the drivers gawking at his full red beard and long, curly locks, is that people in line get free stuff. Last year, the first hundred each got $100 to spend, and ten lucky raffle winners, including Joe, took home season passes to Copper Mountain and Winter Park. "Every year's a gamble," he says. "They tend to give something away to the top one hundred, but you don't know until Thursday or Friday, and Thursday and Friday is too late because the top one hundred's already here."  

Joe and Sven arrived Monday night, but they were only the second group in line. Loren, Lori and Steve had been there since Friday. The girls, ages sixteen and seventeen, didn't seem at all concerned about missing class at Lakewood High School. Lori said she had come out to honor her late uncle Chuck Bentley, a salesman at Gart Sports (Sports Authority's predecessor).

Sounds like a good reason.


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