Chugwater Chili Cook-off, June 19
June 14, 2010
Chris LeDoux was still riding broncs and selling vinyl LPs from his truck when he performed at the very first Chugwater Chili Cook-off in l986. His style was unique, rich and destined for greatness … a perfect match for the upstart chili company that knew they, too, had something very special. And Chugwater Chili’s success has not only helped keep Chugwater on the map, it also spawned one of the country’s most popular cook-offs and one of Wyoming’s most unique annual hometown celebrations.
From those humble beginnings where Chris strummed his 6-string on the lawn at the Diamond Guest Ranch, the cook-off has grown into an extravaganza with stages, tents, cooks galore, vendors, art show, kids’ games, car show, wine tasting, chili tasting, beer wagon … and on and on, as well as an all-day concert featuring some of the finest entertainment in the country. The Jalan Crossland Band, Moe Diggin’, and the Chugwater Band round-out this year’s line-up of great bands.
But why Chugwater and why chili?
The combination seems so unlikely, even though the alliteration of the two words is cleverly charming and almost musical. Like most success stories, the confluence of desire and opportunity also set the scene for Chugwater Chili. The desire part of this story comes from the five farm/ranch families who refused to allow their hometown to just wither up and die … at least not without a good fight. So, how do you go about saving a small town? Job creation through economic development was the obvious answer.
But finding a business that might work for the peculiarities of Chugwater was no easy task. Opportunity now enters the story. A combination of brainstorming, coincidence, networking and luck brought Dave Cameron into the picture. His chili had recently won the state championship cook-off numerous times and received a host of other awards. He called his special recipe Chugwater Chili. Without a doubt, this was some good chili. Would Dave ever consider sharing his recipe? Would selling packaged spices be a viable business for this small community? With some marketing and planning assistance from the Wyoming Department of Agriculture, the great leap was made. The recipe (which was scribbled on hotel stationery) was purchased. And with some help from the University of Wyoming Business College, a considerable amount of sweat equity, and a generous helping of trial and error education … Chugwater Chili was born.
To celebrate their brand new enterprise, the fledgling corporation held a cook-off, the one with Chris LeDoux. This proved so successful it was decided to make it an annual event to be hosted by the entire community. This would now be Chugwater’s annual celebration, too. Within a few short years, this all-volunteer cook-off grew into the largest single-day event in Wyoming, drawing hundreds of cooks and thousands of spectators.
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Likewise, Chugwater Chili continued to flourish over the years. Chugwater Chili is now sold in every state and numerous foreign countries including Germany, Saudi Arabia, France, England and Canada. Their product line now includes a dip and dressing mix, a steak rub, pepper jelly, mugs, clothing and a host of other Wyoming products from books to lotions. And the awards continue to accumulate … at least eight national awards in the last seven years including the prestigious Golden Chili Award in 2009, the Scovie Award in 2003, and the Zestfest People’s Preference Award in 2007.
And what about those jobs? All this is accomplished with two full-time and about 20 part-time employees, plus the large amounts of donated time by the family owners. What’s next? Chugwater Chili continues to expand into targeted markets with their specialty product. They know if people will just try it … they will become loyal fans and customers.
Chugwater Chili is still that small-town company, but now with a big reputation. The interstate billboards encourage travelers to stop in for a free taste. It really is worth the time to do just that. They are more than happy to show you around their headquarters and let you sample their unique products. And if you’ve ever considered attending the cook-off, this would be the year to go. It’s the 25th year and they’re “pullin’ out the stops!” The celebration will be held on Saturday, June 19, at Staats Park in downtown Chugwater, Wyo. It truly is Wyoming’s hometown cook-off.