Carolina Curious: A Listener Hungers For Closure After Chili Sauce Vanishes

Carolina Curious: A Listener Hungers For Closure After Chili Sauce Vanishes

6:07am Mar 28, 2016
Courtesy T.W. Garner Co.

For this edition of Carolina Curious, WFDD’s Eddie Garcia is in Winston-Salem, where listener Wendell Burton is mourning the loss of his favorite condiment, Texas Pete Chili Sauce, after it disappeared from store shelves without warning.

“Why, oh why, did T.W. Garner quit making Texas Pete Chili Sauce? And why didn’t they give us any notice!?"

To dig into this story, I had to go right to the source.

The T.W. Garner Food Company factory in Winston-Salem is where its signature Texas Pete hot sauce comes to life. It is the 4th best-selling brand in the U.S. Sadly for Wendell, the chili sauce wasn’t quite as successful, and they stopped production in early 2015.

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C.E.O. Anne Garner Riddle says it came down to the bottom line.

“We quit making chili because we couldn’t sell it for what it cost us to make it," says Garner. "We were actually losing money on it, and we could not sustain our business if we had continued to do that product.”

Seems simple enough, right? A business has to make money. But this doesn't address Wendell's other pressing question:

“Why didn’t they give us any notice? We’ve been eating this stuff for 20, 30 years, and all of a sudden, BOOM, it’s gone,” says Wendell, in disbelief. “When it just vanished off the shelves, it’s like “what the heck’s going on here?!’”

Garner’s answer? That’s business as usual. But she acknowledges there are many disappointed chili sauce fans out there. In fact, she’s received numerous emails about it.

“And I really, really am sorry. I am so sorry,” Garner says earnestly. “I wish we could have given notice to our consumers. It’s not possible in this industry to do that per some unwritten rule that somebody wrote long before I was born, hopefully.”

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Retail stores ultimately decide when a product leaves the shelves. WIKICOMMONS

So that’s just the way it’s done – but, why?

According to marketing expert Bryan Mattimore with The Growth Engine Company, it’s “survival of the fittest”. He adds that sometimes it’s not really the manufacturers that deserve the blame. Retail stores are stocking the shelves, so they’re the ones that decide when it’s time to let go.

But I had to wonder, couldn’t a manufacturer still make some quick cash by selling it directly to the consumer? A fire sale, if you will?

“You know, they don’t want to necessarily champion their losses to the world. They just sort of let them sell through,” says Mattimore. “They call it a product life cycle. Products can be hot for awhile, then consumers can lose interest. That’s the big thing.”

There is one company, however, who does it a little differently – Vermont ice cream moguls Ben & Jerry’s.

“We actually have a Flavor Graveyard. It is complete with gravestones and everything. It's located at our Waterbury, Vermont factory. And it’s the site where we put our retired flavors to rest,” says Lindsay Bumps, self described “media maven” at Ben & Jerry’s.

In fact, they have a slogan: “Celebrating our failures since 1978.”

But not every flavor stays in the grave – there’s some undead action going on underneath those tombstones.

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Ben & Jerry's "Flavor Graveyard" showcases discontinued products. ADAM FAGEN/FLICKR

“Sometimes we have the opportunity to resurrect flavors. Fans can message us, and if enough fans are requesting one flavor, there’s an opportunity for us to bring it back," says Bumps.

While this bodes well for ice cream fans, it’s not likely that Texas Pete Chili Sauce will return from its eternal slumber.

But thankfully, for Wendell, there’s eBay.

“I actually got about 30 cans from a guy in California,” says Wendell, who adds that he only breaks them out for special occasions.

“Oh yeah, we gotta do our burgers and dogs. I give them away every now and again to brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, as special birthday presents, Christmas presents….”

And so on and so on. Well, at least Wendell has enough rations to assure his status as “most likely to be invited to a cookout” for at least a few more years.

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