Santa Cruz Chili poppin’ peppers since 1943

The Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company was founded in 1943. (Photo by Samantha Sais/ASNS)
The Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company was founded in 1943. (Photo by Samantha Sais/ASNS)
The odor of spices inside Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company in Tumacacori greets visitors even before they open the front door.

Here, spices are not just a product. They’re a craft and a tradition. Sauces, powders and pastes of all colors fill the store from wall to wall.  Some are local flavors, such as the company’s own brand of chili sauces and powders made from fresh peppers harvested on family owned farms each fall and processed at a factory in Pearce.

The company was founded in 1943, though its origin dates back to 1931 when Gene England came to the Southwest and bought a ranch in the Santa Cruz River Valley. Over time, the business expanded, and now the store only has to handle retail sales as well as packaging, labeling and shipping of online sales.

“Were much more efficient than we ever were, but in some ways it hasn’t changed at all,” said Jean England Neubauer, Gene England’s daughter, who took control of the company in 1993 after 25 years in the banking industry. “I still have an office in the back of the warehouse. We still have the same people working for us, with a new generation coming on.

Besides its retail and Internet sales, the company supplies chili pastes and powders for plenty of Mexican restaurants and grocery stores in Southern Arizona.

“People come in because they know the product,” said Armida Castro, a manager at the store. “They’ll come in for the first time and realize we carry all these herbs and spices, and they come back for the quality and price.

“We still have a lot of regular customers who call us and say, ‘Hey, this is so-and-so. I need my fix; I need my case of salsa.’ Over the holidays it really goes out of control.”

Castro’s mother drove deliveries to and from the ranch in Pearce in the 1940s, and now her father and son also work at the store, packaging and labeling shipments.

The store has a “museum” room dedicated to the England family’s history.  Its walls are covered in black-and-white photos of the family farm dating back to the 1940s when Gene England began growing and selling chilies.

Samples of sauces and chips are offered from a table in the middle of the museum. There also are books for sale, along with kitschy souvenirs.

Armida Beltran, who has been packing spices at the store for more than seven years, said at one time the salsa and chili pastes were made in the back of the store, but growing demand and new technology ultimately moved everything to the factory in Pearce, about two hours away by car.

She said one of her favorite spots is the tasting table in the museum room “Every time I walk past, I try something,” Beltran said, laughing.

Castro said Santa Cruz chili pastes are mailed to all parts of the county. “People gotta eat,” and even if they leave Southern Arizona, they still come back for more, she added.


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