William F. “Willie” Gebhardt, business entrepreneur, cook, and chili powder innovator, was born in Germany on March 16, 1875. He was the son of Fredrick and Wilhelmine Gebhardt. In 1883 Gebhardt’s parents immigrated to the United States and eventually settled in the German town of New Braunfels, Texas, in 1885. It was there that William, who was raised to speak German, learned to read and write English. He also met Rose Mary Kronkosky, and they married by 1895. They had three children: Stella, Benno, and Herbert.
Gebhardt’s passion for cooking was first ignited in 1892, when he opened a café in the back of a saloon located on the corner of West San Antonio Street and Castell Street in downtown New Braunfels. The drinking establishment was known as the Phoenix Saloon by the mid-1890s. Gebhardt owned the café for four years. During this time, he developed what became his famous chili powder, which was first called “Tampico Dust,” and he flavored his stew with the spice. Enthralled by the spicy variety of Mexican cuisine, Gebhardt spent his free time traveling the thirty miles south to San Antonio to enjoy the local Mexican food. He began experimenting with grinding herbs and dried peppers, and cooking a variety of chilies for his customers. Chili was a popular dish in the area, but it was seasonally limited due to the availability of fresh peppers. He later discovered that by drying his chili peppers and grinding them into a flavored powder, he could keep the powder fresh for several months. Having learned that, historically, Indian groups had used ancho peppers for seasoning foods, he began importing ancho peppers by the wagonload from San Luis Potosí, Mexico. Thus he stored enough peppers to last for the entire year. Gebhardt spent years developing a recipe to grind chilies into a piquant powder known as chili powder.
In 1896 Gebhardt peddled bottles of his concoction and called it Gebhardt’s Eagle Brand Chili Powder. He registered the Eagle Brand name and trademarked his Eagle Chili Powder. In 1898 he moved to San Antonio and opened a factory on West Commerce Street. The 1900 census listed the family in San Antonio, and Gebhardt was listed as a “Chili Powder Manufacturer.” He soon secured financial backing from his brother-in-law Albert Kronkosky. 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.
In 1908 his company published a cookbook, Mexican Cooking, in an effort to introduce and educate the American public about Mexican food. It was one of the first cookbooks to focus on Mexican-American cooking and spurred several later editions. Gebhardt received his butcher’s license in 1911. This additional qualification enabled his company—renamed to Gebhardt’s Chili Powder Company—to grow and diversify its products by first selling canned chili and later canned tamales.
Over the years, Gebhardt’s 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 was producing 18,000 bottles of chili powder a day. A feature in the August 3, 1924, edition of the San Antonio Light lauded the company’s success: “This growth has brought the factory up from a practically unknown concern in 1900 to its present place as the largest manufacturers of chili products exclusively in the world.” At its height, Gebhardt products were sold across the United States as well as in nineteen other countries across the globe. From what started as a simple desire to learn to cook Mexican food, Gebhardt built an international business, later known as Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company, with commercial products that had never been sold in grocery stores before.
William F. Gebhardt retired from business in 1936. He died at Baptist Memorial Hospital in San Antonio on June 11, 1956. He was buried at St. Mary’s Cemetery in San Antonio.