*This is the third of a three-part series. (Links to parts one and two are below)
By Jennifer Kocher, Cowboy State Daily
At the center of Chugwater and its upcoming annual chili cookoff and festival is the Chugwater Chili Corp.
The company was founded in 1986 by five local ranch and farm families who purchased the Wyoming State Championship Chili recipe and used it to establish a for-profit business.
Today, the company is owned by Karen Guidice and Justin Gentle, the son-in-law of one of the former owners.
The two bought it roughly eight years ago, with Gentle handling marketing and social media, Guidice said. Though the company does get a lot of foot traffic and tourists stopping by during the summer months, the bulk of its customers are online.
Along with their Chugwater chili mix, the company has launched new products including a five-star rated green chili seasoning, steak rub, hot chili seasoning, a dip mix, red pepper jelly, flavored crackers, beef sticks, a chili salt rim for drinks and a cookbook.
“Business is great,” Guidice said, adding that the company has increased sales about 25% every year since she and Gentle took over.
Guidice is not from Chugwater originally, but has lived here for the past 40 years and raised a family here. The former owners were close friends of hers and Guidice would help them by displaying Chugwater Chili’s goods at trade shows. It was her interactions with those potential customers that made her realize they had a special product.
The reaction to every sample was “Wow,” Guidice said, and those who sampled the product wanted to buy it.
“I was always amazed that everyone loved it as much as I did, and when I had a chance to buy in, I did it,” she said.
Most of the company’s new products, including the green chili recipe that took a couple years to perfect, are created by marketing manager Katie Kernan, who loves to cook and knows food, Guidice said.
Today, Chugwater Chili’s products are mixed in batches in Denver and delivered to the company’s headquarters, where everything is shipped out with the help of a small staff.
“Chugwater Chili has been great for the town,” Guidice said.
Guidice said while Chugwater as a town appears to have changed little, its population has undergone a significant shift.
The community now seems to be comprised of more younger couples moving in with small children, Guidice said. When she was raising her children, there were more children and that seems to be becoming the case once again.
One of these new families is among several to open up new businesses in Chugwater.
Alex and Danette Springs and their five children moved to Chugwater in 2019 for the small-town experience.
In 2016, the Springs moved from North Carolina to Carpenter, Wyoming, about 35 miles east of Cheyenne. Years prior, Alex had helped move his wife’s brother to Wheatland and fell in love with the area.
In North Carolina, the family lived on a small farm and Alex co-owned a sawmill with his dad. In Wyoming, he initially took a job building pole barns and roofing, but the drive back and forth from Cheyenne took its toll.
Part of the reason the Springs wanted to live in a small town in Wyoming was to grow their family. The couple is hoping to adopt a child from Ukraine as well as provide foster care.
But all of the driving, on top of Alex’s normal work day, was making it hard for the family to spend time together. One day, a friend who owned a butcher shop in Cheyenne told Alex he was shutting down his operation and offered to sell it to him.
At that point, Alex had dressed his own game meat and did some butchering of farm animals but was far from proficient. The friend helped bring Alex up to speed and, after watching a ton of YouTube videos, Alex felt ready last summer to launch Chug Springs Butchery LLC.
Many people told him that Chugwater was a good place to set up shop, and they were right, Alex said. The company’s first hunting season was busy – including processing two bears a hunter sent down from Alaska. Chug Springs processed its first beef in December and is currently state certified. Springs hopes to add USDA certification next year, which will allow the company to sell beef commercially.
In anticipation of the certification, Alex has already talked to Jesse and Arden Miller and Josh Hopkins, owners of the Tri-County Mercantile, about selling meat through the Mercantile. He also plans to set up his own butcher counter.
Danette and their children also work at the butcher shop and Alex said it’s very much a family-run operation.
There’s been a big learning curve, Alex said.
“It’s a real art,” Alex said, “and a lot of trial and error.”
The family is enjoying the new business and life in Chugwater and appreciates being part of the budding new economy and community.
Annual Festival Continues to Grow
Meanwhile, the annual chili festival, to be held on Saturday this year, has continued to grow with attractions in addition to the chili and salsa contest — such as a cobbler bakeoff and tasting added this year.
The Chugwater Chili Cookoff, which draws thousands from both inside and outside of the state, started when the company was founded in 1986 as a way to celebrate the best chili in the state. In the ensuing years, it has become a nonprofit event and the town’s biggest fundraiser, with all proceeds invested back into the community to help it grow and flourish.
New this year also is a ranch rodeo and bronc rides, according to Guidice, as well as a street dance with live music and free horse-drawn wagon rides.
Jesse Miller has also revamped the car show, bringing it back with 18 different car classes, complete with vendors.
He’s spent the past week digging out dirt and tidying up the former Conoco gas station that he and his partners now own and registration will take place in his parking lot, complete with vendors.
There will also be a cornhole tournament, jalapeno and pie-eating contests and a kids’ corner with games and activities.