The sleepy, stagnant town of Chugwater, Wyoming, reclaimed new life all thanks to a state chili cookoff win and a mouthful of flavor.
A Community Opportunity
The town of Chugwater, Wyoming, had been bypassed by Interstate 25. Its population of 200 hadn’t grown in years, wheat production was down and locals worried their U.S. Post Office could close.
According to Justin Gentle, a sense of stagnation had settled over Chugwater. But in the mid-1980s, five farm and ranch families turned happenstance into opportunity when a Cheyenne man won the Wyoming state chili cookoff with a winning blend of spices bearing the name "Chugwater Chili."
So, the five families pooled their resources to buy rights to the seasoning and, in 1986, launched Chugwater Chili Corp and turned it into a "for-profit" business to help the surrounding community and town of Chugwater.
A Family Affair
Gentle’s in-laws were among the early investors. His wife recalls (and not always in a fond way) hours spent preparing packages for shipping to customers. Those orders helped the town keep its post office. Chugwater Chili also put the town on the map.
And now, the road from Wyoming to the national chili cook-off in Texas runs right through Chugwater. Each year, 1,000 to 2,000 visitors descend on Chugwater during Father’s Day weekend for the crowning of the state’s chili champ, earning the winner bragging rights and points to compete on the national stage.
When Gentle, a rancher, bought Chugwater Chili with neighbor and business partner Karen Guidice in 2015, they acquired a brand with name recognition, particularly in Wyoming. They also saw the potential to expand the product line and its reach.
A Nation-Wide Product
Today, Chugwater Chili Corp. offers five types of seasonings, red pepper jelly, crackers, beef sticks, a chili cookbook and more. The seasonings are blended in Denver and shipped in bulk to Chugwater, where several full- and part-time employees package and label products for sale in their main street shop or for shipping to consumers. Chugwater products can be bought through their website or Amazon.com, as well as on grocery shelves in many communities in the Rocky Mountain region.
For Gentle, a Farm Credit Services of America customer, buying the company was an investment in the future of his community and, he hoped, a part-time job that would allow him to spend more time ranching. “It didn’t work that way,” Gentle says, laughing and adding: “Now I have a 9-to-5 job, plus ranching.