Get a Sharpie and mark your calendars for the weekend of September 20-22. Pueblo’s calling! It’s the 25th Chile and Frijoles Festival---Pueblo’s biggest celebration of the Fall---and, said one of the event’s organizers, things are going to heat up like a four-alarm jalapeño. The city wants to mark this anniversary in a special way.
Begun in 1996, the Chile and Frijoles Festival was a modest affair. “The first one,” said Donielle Kitzman, Vice President of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, “was one block long with a couple of thousand people in attendance.” So low-key was the first edition of the C&F shindig, the Chamber wasn’t even sure it would make enough to cover its expenses. Same thing with the chile roasters. They were uncertain of what they’d committed themselves to.
“They were taking a chance, too,” said Kitzman. The Chamber executive said they were worried that they’d make more staying on the farm selling their goods there than venturing into the city to crowds that might not materialize. Things worked out.
Today’s bash stretches twelve blocks along the city’s eclectic Union Avenue. Union is populated with restaurants, boutiques, bakeries and ice cream stops. Pueblo’s River Walk is also close by. The festival also bleeds over to adjacent streets where there’s a Farmers Market and, for the first time ever, cooking exhibitions. If you have an interest in making anything with a dash of ‘chile heat,’ Kitzman said, add this to your festival things-to-do list.
If the weather cooperates, as it did last year, Kitzman anticipates more than 100,000 visitors will stop by. They’ll also fill their noses with the smell of Pueblo’s signature chile, the very special commodity that has come to symbolize the city. And Kitzman stresses, “only Pueblo chile” will be featured.
“Seven different vendors will roast the chile,” she said. The scent of the Mirasol, the crown jewel of Pueblo peppers will waft over the festival. But other varieties grown in the county---most from farms on the St. Charles Mesa--- including Anaheim, Fresno and Dynamite will also be available for sale. In Pueblo, steel may be the city’s legacy but chile is the wagon the town’s hitching to today.
The chile pepper is ubiquitous on the Chamber’s stationery and marketing material, including hats, mugs, tee-shirts and more. The state and the legislature have even lent a hand by authorizing a commemorative license plate emblazoned with a Pueblo chile. Then, there is also a Pueblo Chile Grower Association, formed in 2012 to promote its brand. The Association’s website, Pueblochile.org, provides locations for sales, recipes, history of the chile and more. In the most subtle of ways, Pueblo has gone green; red, if that’s your chile preference.
Pueblo’s marketing effort has paid off in a big way. Sales of Pueblo chile is now approaching $2 million annually and is on a nearly 10 percent annual growth spurt. It may be a while before the chile border war swings to Pueblo but New Mexico’s Hatch brand, say local growers, has taken notice.
The growth of the Festival has been meteoric, said Kitzman. But along with its maturation, has been its refinement. For the last few years, organizers have tracked attendance via digital surveys. They’ve learned who’s coming to the event and where they’re coming from. It seems word is getting out. “They’re coming from all around southern Colorado,” she said. A growing number is also coming from Colorado Springs and Denver. Not surprising, Pueblo ex-pats are estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000 in the state’s two largest cities.
The Chamber will be hosting a booth for visitors to place pins on a map showing how far they’ve traveled to attend the festival. Kitzman is also encouraging visitors to post their festival stories on Facebook, ideally while wearing one of the commemorative Chile and Frijoles 25th anniversary tee-shirt. No surprise, it features a Pueblo Chile with “Colorado’s ‘C.’”
The event, said Kitzman, is for everyone and especially families. But to make sure no one is left out, organizers have added a new twist to this year’s festival. “We’ll also have a fireworks display,” she said.
The event begins Friday, September 20th on Union Street, at 3:00 p.m. Everyone’s invited.