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Anatomy of a Promotion

Chile peppers, propane burners and poor public relations add up to a smoke screen at Chuy's

Every September, Chuy's sets up big outdoor chile roasters in the parking lots of its restaurants. They're the same kind of roasters you see by the side of the road in New Mexico during the harvest season. The peppers tumble in a wire basket while a set of propane burners blasts them. The aroma of charred skin and roasted chile is so strong it will make you dizzy.

I've long thought this was one of the simplest and smartest restaurant promotions I'd ever seen. You can smell the chiles from the street. Cars pull over to watch them roast. And the dishes Chuy's makes with the fresh-roasted green chiles live up to the hype; the green chile and pork stew and green chile enchiladas taste just like they do in New Mexico.

So I was intrigued by a recent press release promoting "Chuy's 2nd Annual Red Chile Daze featuring Red Chiles from New Mexico, January 21 through February 10." I imagined that "Red Chile Daze" would be a repeat performance of the September festival, except with red chiles. Ripe red New Mexican chiles are usually used for ristas and chile powder and other dried chile products, but you can buy them fresh too. The red chiles taste a little sweeter than the green, and they're usually more expensive. They're also sensational in chicken dishes. I was salivating just thinking about them.

Then I read a bizarre sentence in the press release. It said the festival would "pay tribute to three varieties of New Mexican red chiles…including the chipotle, chile fresno and the arbol pepper." Huh? There's only one kind of chile that's famous in New Mexico (okay, two, if you count the ripe red version of the same chile): In New Mexico they call it the long green; elsewhere it's known as the Anaheim. So I fired off an e-mail to Page Nordstrom, a marketing and public relations person at Chuy's, and I put in a phone call to Dr. Paul Bosland, director of The Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, to get the complete story on New Mexico's bold new venture into the chipotle and chile arbol business.

Chipotles are smoked jalapeños that have been made in Mexico since pre-Columbian times. Nobody has ever made them as well, or as cheaply, as the Mexicans, and I doubt anyone ever will. Chile de arbol is a small dried chile with an earthy flavor and big burn, also treasured south of the border. Bosland said neither has ever been produced in New Mexico on a commercial scale. In fact, the most shocking news from Las Cruces was that Chupes, a world-class dive out in the middle of the chile fields about 45 minutes north of El Paso, had lost its liquor license. Chupes makes maybe the best stuffed chile in New Mexico, but it's also famous for its margaritas and cold tall-boys. Too bad.

But Nordstrom insisted that Chuy's gets its chiles from Sun Products in New Mexico. She also suggested that if I wanted to learn more about chiles, I should go to a New Mexico State University Web site, a site that is, of course, run by Paul Bosland and the Chile Pepper Institute bunch. I find this to be a weird trait among PR people: When you ask them a question about their product or client, they don't bother to learn the answer. They just refer you to some Web site or book they can't be bothered to read.

But I dutifully called Sun Products and asked Craig Stevens if they were smoking chipotles over there. "No," he said. The company specializes in New Mexico green and red, just like everybody else in the state. But then Stevens added to the confusion: It turns out the red chiles Chuy's buys from Sun are dried pods, not fresh red chiles that can be roasted. So I wrote another e-mail.

"To Page Nordstrom, Chuy's: Hopefully, by now you have figured out that chipotles, arbols and fresnos don't come from New Mexico. But that still doesn't clear things up. Your press release says that during your Red Chile Daze, you will be serving a dish called Chile Diablos, which are stuffed 'fire-roasted red peppers.' So is Chuy's roasting fresh New Mexico red chiles in an outdoor propane burner for this Red Chile Daze thing like you do with the green chiles in September? I talked to your supplier Craig Stevens on the phone this morning. He said the New Mexico red chiles he sells Chuy's are all dried. You can't fire-roast dried chiles. So what's the story?"

"We do fire-roast the Chiles Diablos in our restaurants every day during Red Chile Daze using the same fire-roasters as we use during the Green Chile Festival," Nordstrom replied. "But we do not do it outside on display for the customers, it is done in the kitchen."

Chile Diablos? That's the name of a dish, not a chile. And it's pretty unlikely that Chuy's is using fire-roasters in the kitchen. Those big propane-powered chile roasters are outdoor toys. They throw off a lot of sparks, smoke and acrid chile vapors. Nordstrom is definitely not a kitchen person. So I called David Balli, Chuy's purchasing manager.

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