For the last 20 years, the Chile & Frijoles Festival Presented by Loaf 'N Jug has brought hundreds of thousands of people into Pueblo, creating millions in economic impact for the area and building Pueblo’s reputation as a cultural center for Colorado and beyond. Pueblo has grown itself a regional treasure in its annual celebration. But the chile itself was the area’s signature flavor long before there was a festival celebrating it.
A researcher at Colorado State’s Arkansas Valley Research Center, Mike Bartolo, says the mirasol chile pepper is the perfect flavor for Pueblo because Pueblo is perfect for the pepper.
“In this area, there truly is a unique convergence of the right soil, water and climate. The weather is generally hot and dry, which reduces pest pressure. Also notably, Pueblo has one of the greatest variations in day/night temperatures of anywhere in the country," Bartolo says. "Those conditions, coupled with skilled growers, have given rise to a truly outstanding chile pepper.”
Bartolo was there for the festival’s humble beginnings. In the early 1990s, he and several local Chamber of Commerce members (including current Chamber President and CEO, Rod Slyhoff) were brainstorming ideas for how to promote agriculture in the area. They needed to find something identifiable as Pueblo, and a way to celebrate it. Out of those discussions came the Chile & Frijoles Festival Presented by Loaf 'N Jug.
“That first year we only took up one city block, and had about 2,500 people that attended,” Slyhoff says.
Over the last 20 years, the festival has turned into a tremendous boon to the Pueblo economy. Now with 80 different vendors, and annual festival attendance for the last few years exceeding 100,000 people, the city benefits from greater tax income from visitor spending, including the increased bookings at local hotels. Slyhoff estimates the total annual economic impact of the event at $2.5 to $3 million.
What To Do at the Festival
From 5K runs and continuous live entertainment to family events and a jalapeno eating contest, the festival includes activities to suit each age group.
And then there are the chilies. Cooking competitions feature some of Steel City’s best chefs, both professional and amateur. And farmers by the dozens sell chilies by the bushels. Shane Milberger of Milberger Farms estimates that he sold 36,000 pounds of chilies at the 2012 festival.
The festival doesn’t just bring money into Pueblo; it also has elevated the city’s national profile. Visitors from all over the country have started seeing the festival as a travel destination thanks to national exposure in media outlets like the Travel Channel, The New York Times, and Livability.com’s Top 10 Food Festivals. Some visitors make the trip chasing a spicy adventure. Some come for the food and community spirit. Whatever their reason for coming, and no matter how far they’ve come, each visitor to the festival gets a chance to sample Pueblo’s vibrant local flavor – and it’s a tasty one.