Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company was a San Antonio-based firm that was started in 1896 by William Gebhardt, a German immigrant who settled in New Braunfels, Texas, with his parents in the 1880s. Gebhardt’s interest in Mexican food fueled his desire to start the company, which went on to shape the commercialization of chili powder and Mexican convenience foods across the United States for nearly a century.
In 1892 young Gebhardt opened a café in New Braunfels, Texas. For four years he operated the establishment in the back of a saloon, known variously as Miller’s and later the Phoenix Saloon, and located on the corner of West San Antonio Street and Castell Street. Over those years, Gebhardt experimented with grinding herbs and dried peppers, and he cooked a variety of chilies for his customers. He discovered that by drying his chili peppers and grinding them into a flavored powder, he could keep the powder fresh for several months. He packed the dried powder, which he initially called “Tampico Dust,” into small airtight glass bottles. Producing approximately five cases of chili powder at a time, he drive his wagon into town to sell to various markets. Having learned that, historically, Indian groups had used ancho peppers for seasoning, Gebhardt imported ancho peppers by the wagonload from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. This surplus allowed him to stock up and sell his powder any season of the year.
In 1896 Gebhardt debuted the name Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder, and he registered the Eagle Brand name and trademarked his Eagle Brand Chili Powder. Gebhardt moved to San Antonio in 1898 and opened a factory on West Commerce Street. He soon obtained financial investment from his brother-in-law, Albert Kronkosky, and the company incorporated in 1903. Gebhardt initially sold his powder in Texas, but his success with his product allowed him to take credit as the first entrepreneur to market his chili powder on a large scale. Gebhardt Chili Powder Company published a cookbook, Mexican Cooking, in 1908 in an effort to introduce and educate the American public on Mexican food. It was one of the first cookbooks to focus on Mexican-American cooking and spurred several later editions.
In 1911 Gebhardt acquired his butcher’s license, which allowed his company to grow and diversify its products by selling canned chili and canned tamales. By 1915 Gebhardt Chili Powder Company was heralded as the largest spice manufacturer in the world. Two plants in San Antonio employed more than 100 people. Albert Kronkosky was president of the company, and William Gebhardt served as vice president. G. G. Geyer worked as secretary, treasurer, and general manager of the company. The product line expanded to include canned beans, deviled sandwich spread, enchiladas, sauces, dips, peppers and spices—under such names as Eagle Tabasco Sauce, Eagle Chili Con Carne, Deviled Chili Meats, Eagle Spaghetti and Chili, and others.
Gebhardt Chili Powder Company expanded exponentially and sold products in most of the United States as well as London, South Africa and Canada. Profits reached almost $1 million by 1915, and Gebhardt’s company produced 18,000 bottles of chili powder a day.
The September 27, 1922, edition of the San Antonio Evening News reported that the company’s two manufacturing plants, one located on Frio Street and a new plant on South Laredo Street, employed more than 200 workers. The company also used representatives that traveled across the United States. A Gebhardt representative had established El Rancho, a Mexican restaurant that served Gebhardt products at 704 Seventh Avenue in New York City. Gebhardt’s company had also established pepper plantations in Mexico to cultivate ancho peppers for “exclusive use” of the company.
The company marketed its products on radio commercials, and newspaper and magazine advertisements. The brand packaging was bright and colorful, and ads usually featured animated drawings, catchy slogans, and blurbs such as:
The “Chili Queens” may have given it the name…BUT Gebhardt gave “Chili” its flavor…San Antonio style.
Gebhardt’s. If you think it’s just a great chili, you might be missing something.
That Real Mexican Tang.
At its height, Gebhardt’s products were sold across the United States as well as in nineteen countries across the globe.
Founder William Gebhardt retired from his business in 1936, and he died in 1956. In 1960 Gebhardt Chili Powder Company was sold to Chicago-based Beatrice Foods Company, which also owned and operated other brands, including Rosarita Mexican Food Company and La Choy Food Products Company. Gebhardt’s became an independent division of Beatrice Foods, and the acquisition allowed for increased national marketing.
In the 1980s the Gebhardt factory was upgraded and expanded to more than 115,000 square feet on 3.6 acres. Located at 1810 S. Laredo Street, the plant had a boiler, canning facility, and two warehouses. By 1984 the company, which had expanded to five times its size since prior to 1960, was renamed Gebhardt Mexican Foods. In 1985 Beatrice was acquired by Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts, & Company, and the Gebhardt brand became part of the Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson division. Though sales rose in the western states of Arizona, California, Oregon, and Washington, more than 60 percent of all profits still came from sales in Texas.
In 1990 ConAgra Foods, headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, purchased Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson, which included Gebhardt Mexican Foods. The San Antonio plant was eventually closed. ConAgra still owned Gebhardt in the 2010s. Although corporate ownership de-emphasized the Gebhardt’s brand, some products, including William Gebhardt’s famous chili powder, were still found in some grocery stores, including the H-E-B supermarket chain in Texas and Mexico.