Clifton Bolner wanted out of the grocery business. He had worked for his grandfather, Joe Bolner Jr., since he was a child, and, with typical Texas swagger, he was looking for a way to prove his own worth. Joe had immigrated from Italy to Mexico and then settled in San Antonio, opening a grocery store there in 1906. After graduating from Texas A&M University in 1949 and serving as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, Clif, as he was known, felt there wasn’t space for him in his father’s business. Then, in 1955, 25-year-old Clif saw a newspaper advertisement announcing that a fledgling spice company housed in a 1,200-square-foot building was for sale by its retiring owner, Mr. Van Zandt. The asking price was $25,000. After completing negotiations, Van Zandt and Clif agreed on a much lower price of $3,000. It was twice as much as Clif had to spare, so he borrowed the rest. Clif got the keys and an agreement from Van Zandt that they would meet at the building the next morning to review accounts. The old man never showed, but he had cashed the check. It was 9 a.m, and Bolner’s Fiesta Brand spices was born.
Clif walked ten blocks to a Piggly Wiggly and enthusiastically introduced himself to the produce manager, who was not pleased to see him. It had been eight weeks since Van Zandt’s last delivery. Undeterred, Clif promised the man he’d be there every Monday at 8 a.m. to stock the shelf. To make good on his word, Clif had his family pitch in, even his school-age son, Tim. “I was five years old and putting black pepper in bags,” recalled Tim, who is now president of Bolner’s Fiesta Products, the parent company of Bolner’s Fiesta Brand. The other products included whole cumin, whole anise, cinnamon sticks, a garlic blend, a salt blend, a quick chili mix, and menudo seasoning.
Nearly seventy years later, the company has grown to sell more than a thousand products, and its bottles and bags of spices are standard in Texas home kitchens. A friend of mine from San Antonio didn’t realize his mother used Fiesta seasoning to marinate chicken and beef for tacos when he was growing up. He thought the adobo mixture was homemade until, in conversation with his mother, he reminisced about those meals. She confessed, to my friend’s shock, that she used Fiesta spices. “You think I had all that time?” she responded in Spanish. Why and how did it take decades to position Fiesta spices as an essential presence in homes? According to Tim, the journey was arduous.
“Dad said it was a nightmare for the first two years,” Tim recounted as we sat in the company’s San Antonio headquarters joined by Tim’s son, Greg Bolner, who is the operations manager, and his wife, Lindsay Bolner, who manages social media and marketing. “It was nothing but struggle after struggle after struggle.” Business slowly grew, but, as 72-year-old Tim explains, Clif lacked a reputation in the industry. Scaling up from working at his family’s supermarket to running his own venture took sacrifice. Clif often had to pay cash up front to get his products on shelves in a market whose brands were small but many. The supermarket boom hadn’t yet occurred. Chains were tiny. Yes, H-E-B was in business, but there were other operations. Handy Andy had no more than thirty stores at the time. Safeway was just making inroads into Texas. There were myriad independent retailers, but the most prevalent brand was Piggly Wiggly. This desperate time, as Tim describes it, lasted about fifteen years, into the 1970s.
Tim worked during most of it, starting in earnest while in high school and holding down another job as a stocker and cashier at a local Handy Andy. “I was working sixty hours a week. Still got in trouble, though,” he said with a laugh. Later, Tim received a college degree in mechanical engineering. He went on to work at IBM and utility companies, but he kept a part-time job at the family business until he was ready to return full time.
The family purchased a small automatic-packaging machine that made bags and filled them. With the help of Tim’s grandfather, Joe, the business purchased a $50,000 grinder for $100 from the closing H and H Coffee Company. It remains in use today as a pepper grinder. (“We’ve had to obviously rebuild parts and stuff,” Tim says.) Little by little, with the help of family members, including Tim’s brother Chris, Chris’ son Christopher, cousin Jeff, and loyal employees, some of whom have been with the company for 25 years, Bolner’s Fiesta Brand grew to include multiple buildings for receiving, loading, and production. It’s even the preferred brand of choice for some of the state’s most famous legacy and craft barbecue joints, Mexican brands, and beloved supermarkets. Shelves of sample jars of the private-label products stand near Tim’s desk. Business, Tim insisted, is done predominantly with handshake deals. Yes, those still exist. Trust and family are the secret spices in Bolner’s Fiesta Products. “I don’t do anything without talking to Greg and Chris,” Tim said.
The company remains a multigenerational business. Greg and Lindsay’s children are ready to step in when their time comes. I can’t help but wonder, though, how the fourth generation of Bolners’ lungs will fare. During the hours I spent interviewing the family in the conference room, the vapors of spices snaked across the campus’s air into my lungs, growing stronger, until my nasal passages and lungs burned with black pepper, cayenne, chile powder, and paprika. The sensation grew stronger as we toured the facility, its mix of repurposed and modern machinery churning and whirring. Bottling and capping were timed, with exact measurements of contents. Crinkled, dried chiles were carried up a conveyor belt to a bag waiting to be sealed and shipped to a store, like the Mexican market three blocks from my house. I mentioned the burning sensation in my lungs to Greg. “You get used to it,” he responded. I’m not so sure the feeling dissipates, but I am certain Texans’ love of Bolner’s Fiesta Brand spices isn’t going to wane anytime soon.