The chile roasters are out in New Mexico and nearby states as Hatch chile season is in full swing. “This is my favorite time of year—the air is thick with the smell of roasting chilies,” says Jennifer Knapp, value chain specialist for La Montañita Co-op Food Market, a four-store cooperative grocer in New Mexico that sells and distributes fresh organic Hatch.
Jennifer Knapp, Value Chain Specialist, La Montañita Co-op Food Market
“People associate [Hatch] green chile with New Mexico—as they should! It is our state vegetable,” says Knapp. “No other pepper tastes like green chile. … The smell, the flavor, the look—all unique to this land. Everyone in New Mexico gets so excited when they see the roasters starting to come out. The smell of green chile roasting is intoxicating.”
Hatch peppers are grown in the Hatch Valley, a region along the Rio Grande in southern New Mexico, and they comprise multiple chile varieties—including NuMex Big Jim, NuMex Sandia, NuMex Joe Parker, and many more. Usually sold as green chilies when they’re fresh, Hatch have an earthy taste and different levels of heat depending on the variety. When left on the vine for longer, Hatch peppers become red, and these are primarily sold in dried form. (Ristras, or strings of dried red chilies, are iconic to New Mexico.)
“No other pepper tastes like green chile. … The smell, the flavor, the look—all unique to this land. Everyone in New Mexico gets so excited when they see the roasters starting to come out. The smell of green chile roasting is intoxicating.” – Jennifer Knapp
“Green chile is generally only available for about two months of the year if we are lucky,” says Knapp, noting that the typical window is from roughly mid-August to early October.
La Montañita Co-op, which has its own distribution center, sources its fresh organic Hatch peppers from Seco Spice, a grower in the Hatch Valley that processes more than one million pounds of fresh green chile annually.
Hatch red chile ristra
“As a century-old farming family, we like to think we know why our New Mexico chile tastes better than any other chile grown in the USA or across the world,” says Seco Spice on its website. “We firmly believe that chile grown in New Mexico tastes better in much the same way that the French wine regions believe they make the finest wines. ... Our products are the best because of our heritage, our water, our air, and our local soil.”
In 2020, La Montañita sold 70 percent of its fresh organic Hatch through its four stores, and the rest was sold via its Albuquerque-based distribution center to external customers, including Veritable Vegetable, Whole Foods, local restaurants, and other co-ops and independent grocers in New Mexico.
“We firmly believe that chile grown in New Mexico tastes better in much the same way that the French wine regions believe they make the finest wines. ... Our products are the best because of our heritage, our water, our air, and our local soil.” – Seco Spice
“Once a year, we [also] always have some Colorado customers calling for a pick up,” adds Knapp. “I think they know that Pueblo, Colorado chile just cannot beat Hatch grown. (These are fightin’ words, by the way.)”
Veritable Vegetable has been carrying fresh organic Hatch since 2017. The San Francisco-based distributor purchases hot and medium chilies from La Montañita and sells them to independent retail grocers.
“They have such a unique flavor when roasted. They are the perfect balance of heat and sweetness and are a great addition to so many dishes,” says Qiana Cameron, a buyer for Veritable Vegetable. “Our sales doubled from 2019 to 2020. … This could be from all the experimental ‘cheffing’ that has gone on during the pandemic. Whatever the reason, we hope this trend continues!”
Qiana Cameron, Buyer, Veritable Vegetable
“When I was a produce manager, customers would start asking in June, ‘When is the chile coming?!’ even though they knew it was still a couple months away,” says Knapp. “People just can’t get enough of it, and I don’t blame them! I honestly can’t imagine life without it.”
“Our sales doubled from 2019 to 2020. … This could be from all the experimental ‘cheffing’ that has gone on during the pandemic. Whatever the reason, we hope this trend continues!” – Qiana Cameron
When it comes to merchandising Hatch, Knapp suggests “big bountiful baskets of fresh pods.” She also recommends large signage (“our stores always have big banners outside alerting everyone that ‘Chile is Here!’”) and providing consumers with recipe ideas.
Chile roaster, La Montañita Co-op, Albuquerque, NM
“Green chile is so incredibly versatile,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed green chile in both savory and sweet dishes. There is a restaurant in Albuquerque that makes a green chile apple pie—it’s so good. I also firmly believe that green chile is cheese’s best friend.”
Veritable Vegetable Merchandiser Kerri Williams suggests retailers build “[Hatch] displays with canning or freezing supplies with instructions on roasting (grill and oven) and how to peel and store [the peppers]. … There have also been a lot of new Hatch products hitting the shelf this year like chips, popcorn, salsas, ice cream, cheeses, jams, and crackers,” she says. “If any stores have these products, those would be great to cross-merchandise with.”
Kerri Williams, Merchandiser, Veritable Vegetable
Like Knapp, Williams suggests plentiful amounts of peppers for retail merchandising. “The best Hatch displays I’ve seen are large with abundant supply. Not so much here in California, but in New Mexico, customers buy Hatch by the pounds—and sometimes even full cases—because they are roasting and freezing them to be used throughout the year. I do the same. I love Hatch chilies! They are becoming more popular, and I have started seeing (online) stores in Southern California advertising roasting. That’s what I saw in New Mexico. Stores would sell fresh roasted chilies and set up chile roasters outside.”
“There have also been a lot of new Hatch products hitting the shelf this year like chips, popcorn, salsas, ice cream, cheeses, jams, and crackers.” – Kerri Williams
Roasted Hatch chilies, La Montañita Co-op, Albuquerque, NM
While the current drought affecting New Mexico and much of the West is unlikely to cause Hatch chile peppers to go out of production anytime soon, the lack of water is concerning in terms of its potential to reduce crop size. “New Mexico relies heavily on the export of this product, and [the drought] could have a significant impact on us financially,” says Knapp.
Indeed, New Mexico is the largest producer of chilies in the United States, and New Mexico State University is home to the Chile Pepper Institute—the only international research and education nonprofit dedicated to chile peppers.
Chile roaster, La Montañita Co-op, Albuquerque, NM
“New Mexico relies heavily on the export of this product, and [the drought] could have a significant impact on us financially.” – Jennifer Knapp
“When people move from New Mexico, what they miss is always the chile,” says Knapp. “The gorgeous sky too, but mostly the chile. … I don’t think I could ever move from here. This is the ‘Land of Enchantment’ for a reason, and it’s not just because of the visual beauty and incredible culture; it’s the food—and that goes hand in hand with the chile.”