Chili powder is a standard ingredient found in pantries across America today, but it wasn't always everywhere. The origins of commercial chili powder can be traced back to the 1890s and a German immigrant in Texas named William Gebhardt.
His passion for chili and Mexican cuisine led Gebhardt to invent a process for drying and grinding chile peppers into a versatile, shelf-stable seasoning. This innovation not only spawned an international business but also introduced generations of Americans to the flavorful world of Tex-Mex cooking.
William Gebhardt's Cafe Sparks a Chili Powder Revolution
In the 1890s, William "Willie" Gebhardt operated a small cafe in New Braunfels, Texas. Located in the back of the Phoenix Saloon, Gebhardt's cafe quickly gained popularity for serving chili, a spicy stew. The key ingredient was a special chili powder Gebhardt invented called "Tampico Dust."
Gebhardt's passion for food was sparked during his regular trips to San Antonio to enjoy the local Mexican cuisine. He imported ancho chili peppers from Mexico and spent years perfecting a technique for drying and grinding them into a flavorful powder. This allowed Gebhardt to make his chili all year round, not just when fresh peppers were in season.
In 1896, Gebhardt changed the name of his chili powder to "Gebhardt's Eagle Brand" and began selling it commercially. Two years later, he moved his family to San Antonio and opened the Gebhardt Chili Powder factory.
Gebhardt's Chili Powder Takes Texas by Storm
Initially, Gebhardt only sold his chili powder regionally in Texas. Most Americans outside of the Lone Star State were unfamiliar with chili or how to cook with chili powder.
To promote his product nationally, Gebhardt published "Mexican Cooking" in 1908, one of the first cookbooks introducing Tex-Mex cuisine. The book touted chili powder as an essential spice and included dozens of recipes using Gebhardt's Eagle Brand.
By 1915, business was booming. The Gebhardt Chili Powder Company operated two factories in San Antonio and produced 18,000 bottles of chili powder per day. Profits neared $1 million annually, making it the largest spice plant in the world at the time.
Canned Chili and Tamales Diversify the Product Line
Never resting on his laurels, Gebhardt expanded into canned foods in 1911 after acquiring a butcher's license. His company began canning chili con carne and tamales, products virtually unknown to Americans outside of Texas.
While not the first to sell canned chili, Gebhardt brought it to the mass market by canning chili made from his famous Eagle Brand chili powder. More cookbooks followed, featuring "authentic" chili, tamale, and Tex-Mex recipes calling specifically for Gebhardt's ingredients.
By the 1920s, Gebhardt's company had over 200 employees churning out chili powder, canned chili, tamales, sauces, beans, and more. His products could be found throughout America and internationally in Canada, London, and South Africa.
Keeping a Legacy Alive Through Changing Ownership
William Gebhardt retired from the business in 1936 and passed away in 1956 at age 81. However, his name and chili powder lived on.
In 1960, the Gebhardt Chili Powder Company was acquired by Beatrice Foods but continued to operate as an independent division. Under Beatrice, national distribution and marketing expanded.
After changing hands again in the 1980s, the company was modernized and renamed Gebhardt Mexican Foods. By 1990, operations had grown fivefold from pre-Beatrice days.
Today, Conagra Brands owns Gebhardt's. While the product line has evolved, Gebhardt's famous Eagle Brand Chili Powder is still available on store shelves more than 125 years after its inception in William Gebhardt's New Braunfels cafe.
From German Immigrant to Chili Tycoon
William F. Gebhardt was born in 1875 in Germany. His family immigrated to America when he was 8 years old, settling in the German community of New Braunfels.
As a young man in his early 20s, Gebhardt opened his first cafe behind the Phoenix Saloon and honed his chili recipe. Just a few years later in 1896, the ambitious 21-year-old was selling his patented chili powder commercially.
Gebhardt spoke fluent German but quickly learned English after arriving in Texas. In 1900, census records list him in San Antonio as a "Chili Powder Manufacturer." The same year, he married local girl Rose Mary Kronkosky.
By the 1910s, Gebhardt held dozens of patents related to chili powder production and canning equipment. When profits hit $1 million in 1915, he was just 40 years old.
Gebhardt presided over the company's growth into an international business. But he never forgot his roots, keeping company headquarters in San Antonio for over 50 years before retiring.
Bringing Mexican Flavor to American Kitchens
Gebhardt's passion for Mexican food led him to travel regularly to San Antonio as a young man. The local chili queens and colorful cuisine fascinated him.
When he began selling chili powder in 1896, few Americans outside of Texas knew how to cook authentic Mexican dishes. So Gebhardt made it his mission to educate the public.
His 1908 cookbook Mexican Cooking introduced families nationwide to peculiar-sounding foods like tamales, tortillas, and frijoles. While modified for American tastes, Gebhardt's recipes opened up a world of new flavors.
Later cookbooks like 1921's Mexican Cookery reflected the company's expanding Tex-Mex product line. Recipes incorporated canned chili, chili gravy, tamales, and peppers into "authentic" dishes like enchiladas.
Generations of Americans have Gebhardt to thank for bringing spice to bland American fare and popularizing Mexican cooking nationwide.
Keeping Quality Standards High
As his company grew, Gebhardt took steps to ensure his products met high standards of quality and sanitation.
When the chili powder factory moved to San Antonio in 1898, Gebhardt imported the coveted ancho peppers directly from suppliers in Mexico. Dried and ground using his patented process, only the finest peppers made the cut.
Cleanliness was also paramount. 1910s era photos show Gebhardt consulting with health officials to make sure his facilities met strict sanitary codes. Maintaining quality was personal for Gebhardt, who wanted to share authentic flavors safely with mass consumers.
Even after selling his company, Gebhardt's name on a product became synonymous with quality. When asked in the 1980s why she preferred Gebhardt's chili powder, one customer said she'd trusted the brand to flavor her cooking for over 50 years.
Thanks to Willie Gebhardt's tireless innovations over a century ago, chili powder and Tex-Mex food have become ubiquitous components of American cuisine.
Where was William Gebhardt originally from?
William Gebhardt was born in Germany in 1875. His family immigrated to America when he was 8 years old and settled in New Braunfels, Texas.
When did Gebhardt open his first cafe?
In 1892 at age 17, Gebhardt opened a small cafe located in the back of the Phoenix Saloon in New Braunfels, Texas. It was here that he first served his homemade chili using a special chili powder he invented.
What motivated Gebhardt to start producing chili powder?
During trips to San Antonio, Gebhardt fell in love with the local Mexican cuisine. He began importing ancho peppers from Mexico and created a process to dry and grind them into a flavorful chili powder that could be used year-round.
How did Gebhardt promote his Eagle Brand chili powder?
In 1908, Gebhardt published one of the first Mexican cookbooks to educate Americans about Mexican cooking. His book touted chili powder as an essential spice and included recipes specifically calling for his Eagle Brand.
When did Gebhardt retire from his company?
After growing the business into a worldwide success, William Gebhardt retired in 1936 at the age of 61. He died in 1956 in San Antonio.
Who owns the Gebhardt brand today?
The company has changed hands several times but is currently owned by Conagra Brands. Gebhardt's original Eagle Brand chili powder recipe is still sold today more than 125 years after its creation.
Thanks to the visionary entrepreneurship of William Gebhardt, chili powder has become one of the most popular spices in the United States. His San Antonio-based company brought Mexican flavors into American kitchens through savvy marketing and educational cookbooks. Willie Gebhardt lived to see his Eagle Brand chili powder become a household name across America and internationally.
Although the company has changed hands over the decades, Gebhardt's original chili powder recipe and devotion to quality remain his lasting legacy. The next time you sprinkle chili powder on your food, remember the German immigrant who made it all possible - William "Willie" Gebhardt.