Mexican Foods Company Collection

A zesty journey following the popularization of chili powder and Mexican convenience foods in America through company records preserved by The University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries.
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The Beginnings

The name that made Chili famous

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When William Gebhardt began experimenting with grinding herbs and dried peppers, he probably didn’t imagine his concoction would become a staple used in Mexican dishes nationwide, giving people a kick on the tongue for years to come.

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Born in 1875 in Germany, Gebhardt immigrated with his family to the United States in 1883 and settled in New Braunfels, Texas, a couple years later. He loved to cook, and in 1892 opened his first café in the back of a saloon. He reportedly became infatuated with Mexican food after regular visits to San Antonio, thirty miles to the south.

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He decided to invest in his future. He wrote to Mexico and ordered a whole wagonload of ancho peppers to be delivered to New Braunfels. … Willy had a dream. He wasn’t content to just serve his regular customers his new recipes, even though they were beating a path to his door. He thought bigger than that. He wanted everyone to enjoy chili anytime they wanted."
– The Gebhardt Story of Mexican Food

The Rise of Chili Powder

That Real Mexican Tang

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In 1896, Gebhardt registered the Eagle Brand Chili Powder trademark and opened a commercial establishment in San Antonio to manufacture and sell chili powder.

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Initially, Gebhardt’s market was limited to Texas. Americans outside the state simply did not know how to cook with chili powder.

Around 1908, the company published Mexican Cooking, one of the first Tex-Mex cookbooks. The cookbook introduced Americans to what would become one of the most popular cuisines in the country.

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Gebhardt imported ancho peppers from Mexico, grinding the peppers several times in a meat grinder, and storing the fine powder in airtight containers. The best peppers were harvested in the plateau or semi-mountainous regions of Mexico.

Competitors tried to make cheaper grades of chili powder using peppers grown in California, but were unsuccessful because the use of artificial drying techniques rather than natural ones caused loss of flavor and color.

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The success of Gebhardt’s chili powder has naturally brought forth a host of spurious chili powders or compounds of which the public should be aware. [Ours is the only product that delivers] ‘That Real Mexican Tang’."
– Mexican Cooking

Expansion: The Debut of Mexican Convenience Food

The “Chili Queens” may have given it the name … but Gebhardt gave “Chili” its flavor … San Antonio style.

— Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company advertisement
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Gebhardt didn’t stop at chili powder.

In 1911, Gebhardt received a butcher’s license and began expanding his product line to include canned chili con carne and tamales. By then, the company had been renamed Gebhardt’s Chili Powder Company.

Females working on the chili powder packaging assembly line. Outside the Gebhardt Factory
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Although not the first to sell chili con carne, Gebhardt was the first to make a large-scale business of it. A Texan reportedly tried to develop a market for canned goat-meat chili in the 1870s, and the Chili Queens of San Antonio sold the homemade stew at plazas from the 1860s to the late 1930s.

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Gebhardt’s manufacturing operation continued to grow, and the company published more cookbooks to promote later products like canned chili, canned beans, deviled sandwich spread and Mexican dinners-in-a-box.

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While the Gebhardt cookbooks describe the recipes as “real” Mexican cooking, it’s not likely that Mexicans would recognize many of the dishes. Recipes include piquant deviled eggs, hominy and chili scramble, and beans in tomato cups.

Mexican Cookery
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Employees at the manufacturing plants recalled doing everything by hand during the early years - rolling tamales, applying labels, and stacking cans.

In the beginning there was not always enough business to keep the lines running full time. Some weeks we’d only work 3 or 4 days, sometimes we’d work only half a day. I can remember working some mornings and then going to the movies in the afternoon. I only made 43 cents an hour in those days, but the money seemed to go further."
– Estefana Morales, recalling memories of working for Gebhardt’s in the 1940s, as quoted in a 1987 issue of Horizons magazine, a company publication
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The company marketed its products on radio commercials, and newspaper and magazine advertisements. The brand packaging was bright and colorful, and ads typically featured animated drawings and catchy slogans and blurbs.

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Corporate Ownership

Gebhardt’s. If you think it’s just a great chili, you might be missing something.

— Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company advertisement
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William Gebhardt died at the age of 81 in 1956, 20 years after retiring from active business.

In 1960, Gebhardt’s Chili Powder Company became an independent division of Chicago-based Beatrice Food Company, which also operated Rosarita Mexican Food Company and La Choy Food Products Company. This acquisition allowed for increased national marketing.

Gebhardt Media

View an original Gebhardt television commercial or listen to a radio ad in English or Spanish.

English Radio Ad

Spanish Radio Ad

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In the 1980’s, the Gebhardt plant was modernized and expanded to include more than 115,000 square feet on 3.6 acres. The plant had a boiler, canning plant and two warehouses.

Gebhardt’s product line expanded to include taco shells, enchiladas, sauces, dips, peppers and spices. The Gebhardt name became synonymous with packaged Mexican food.

By 1984, the company was renamed Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company and it had grown to five times its size before the merger. Beatrice was then acquired by Kohlburg, Kravis and Roberts, and became part of the Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson division.

Sales increased in California, Arizona, Oregon and Washington, but more than 60 percent of all profits were still from Texas. Mexican food sections in grocery stores — often featuring Gebhardt products — grew in popularity.

In 1990, ConAgra Incorporated, a food production company headquartered in Omaha, Neb., bought Beatrice/Hunt Wesson. By 1997, Gebhardt Mexican Foods was part of Hunt Foods, a division within the corporation.

Although corporate ownership has de-emphasized the Gebhardt brand, a few products can still be found in some grocery stores today, including H.E.B., a supermarket in Texas and Mexico. The Gebhardt legacy also lives on in the recently-revived Phoenix Saloon in New Braunfels, where diners once again enjoy chili in the home of Gebhardt’s original café.

William Gebhardt’s experiments grinding herbs and dried peppers eventually led to new culinary traditions for families across the nation. Today, chili powder is one of the most common seasonings found in American homes.

Female standing beside coupon sign and store display
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I am 80 years old, have been married 54 years and have used Gebhardt’s Chili Powder ever since I learned to cook. ... My grandmother owned and operated a boarding hotel in Richmond, Calif., and did all the cooking for the same. Her chili con carne was a popular and famous dish among her boarders. That was in World War I years."
- M.T. Humphreys (customer letter written in June 1988)
Female standing beside coupon sign and store display
Store Display Instructions
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I loved their chili meat spread. Mixed it with a scrambled egg and ate [it in] a sandwich, hot or cold. I’d love to find a recipe for it. I haven’t seen any since the mid 1980s."
- Claudia Pugh (comment on a La Cocina Histórica blog post in May 2012)
Machine adding labels to chili powder bottles

Family Tradition

Our mother used a lot in her cooking when we were growing up in South Texas, and it just made everything taste so good.

– Jose Rodriguez (comment on a La Cocina Histórica blog post in July 2012)

Acknowledgements

This exhibit features images from Special Collections at the University of Texas at San Antonio Libraries. Most images are from the Gebhardt Mexican Foods Company Records, dating from 1896-1988. Select images are from the San Antonio Light and General Photograph Collections collected by the Institute of Texan Cultures, UTSA's cultural heritage museum.

Visit the exhibit’s citations page for more detailed information regarding the images and sources used to create this exhibit. Some images in this exhibit may appear partially hidden in order to render appropriately in the site’s design. To see full-scale images, follow the links in the citations page.

The UTSA Libraries would like to thank the following individuals who made this exhibit come to life:

Research and Content
Juli McLoone, Rare Books Librarian
Design
George Marez, Web Designer/Developer
Development
George Marez, Web Designer/Developer
Bonny Woods, Web Specialist
Writing
Stephanie Sanchez, former Senior Communications Specialist
Juli McLoone, Rare Books Librarian
Translation
Maya Guirao
Additional Research
Rita Wilson, Government Documents Coordinator
Nikki Thomas, Manuscripts Curator
Administrative Leadership and Support
Mark Shelstad, former Head of Special Collections
Anne Peters, Director of Library Communications

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