Winston-Salem: A Zesty Destination
With a name like Texas Pete®, you would think one of the world’s most popular hot sauces would be from the Lone Star State - and not North Carolina. Well, anyone in Winston-Salem knows better – especially if their last name is Garner.
The long-time hot sauce of choice was actually created--and is still produced--in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It’s a zesty little history (and geography) lesson that’s still on the tongues (and taste buds) of many locals--and thousands of other fans who swear by the many uses of this famed spicy condiment.
“My uncle, Thad Garner, plus his father, mother and two of his brothers, actually started this business back in 1929--when my uncle bought a small barbecue stand and sauce recipe,” said Reg Garner. In relating this history, Reg was seated in the conference room of the company’s now-sprawling headquarters and factory, which is located on the land once occupied by his family’s farm (and less than two miles from the site of the original “Q“ stand). “We now have five direct descendents of the founders working here, including a fourth generation.”
The now-legendary story about the naming of the sauce goes something like this. Customers of the barbecue stand kept requesting a spicier sauce, so the Garners created a new recipe using red peppers and a still-secret blend of other ingredients (vinegar was and is another key ingredient).
In discussing a name for the unique new sauce, one of the brothers suggested the name, “Mexican Joe.” But father Samuel felt the name should be more American, saying, “Maybe Texas…but, Texas what?” At that moment, Sam’s eyes fell upon his son, Harold, who was nicknamed Pete…and the name Texas Pete was born.
Millions of gallons later, Texas Pete Hot Sauce remains a classic condiment for many foods throughout the southeast U.S. and the rest of the world. The Garners say folks in Winston-Salem love it on their eggs, chicken wings, pizza, potato salad, and practically everything else. Many restaurants in the area keep the ubiquitous small bottles on every table, right along with the salt and pepper--as well as using it in a variety of dishes on their menus (see restaurant recommendations below).
Now called the TW Garner Food Company, this spicy Winston-Salem company has become much more than the long-time manufacturer of a single hot sauce. They began producing popular jams, jellies, and preserves for soldiers at Fort Bragg during World War II and many varieties are still made today. Then, in 1958, they became the first company to manufacture canned Chili Sauce (typically topping hamburgers and hot dogs).
In the 1970s, they expanded the line to include classic southern staples like Texas Pete Honey Mustard Sauce (a great addition to baked beans), Texas Pete Pepper Sauce (some hearty folks eat the peppers along with using the spicy liquid), and Texas Pete Seafood Cocktail Sauce (best with boiled shrimp). The 1980s saw the addition of Texas Pete Buffalo Style Chicken Wing Barbecue Sauce (need we say more?).
In 2004, TW Garner purchased Vermont’s Green Mountain Gringo® and moved those operations to Winston-Salem. With the legacy of Texas Pete, this purchase was a natural. Green Mountain Gringo products include original salsas (mild to hot), flavored salsas (we love the Roasted Chile Pepper), and unique Tortilla Strips. All Green Mountain offerings feature fresh ingredients, with the classic yellow and white corn strips in the rectangular shape an ideal “carrier” for the varied salsas. The original Tortilla Strips became so popular that the company recently introduced Green Mountain Gringo Blue Tortilla Chips, which are made with organic stone-ground blue corn flour (while maintaining the original rectangular shape).
Today, Reg Garner serves as president of the company that’s become known for Texas Pete and much more. His sister, Ann Garner Riddle, is the firm’s vice president. Hal Garner, son of another of the original founding brothers, serves as secretary, treasurer, and office manager, while Hal’s son, Glenn, is the director of marketing. Frank Sherrill, son of a founding daughter, is the vice president of sales.
Their Winston-Salem headquarters doesn’t host visitors for tours (the recipe for Texas Pete is still a secret), but the reception area does have an array of gifts and gear for sale. Many of the items feature the Texas Pete logo depicting a cowboy about to lasso something - like some serious flavor, perhaps?
The purchase possibilities include varied gift boxes, hats, tumblers, mugs, mouse pads, T-shirts, golf shirts, clocks, golf bags, and even a bright red “koozie” in the shape of a cowboy boot. Reg Garner or one of the other family members just might be passing through the lobby, offering visitors a brush with some zesty history far from the Lone Star State.
The Rest of Winston-Salem
To say that the rest of Winston-Salem is into Texas Pete products is a mild understatement. As mentioned, many restaurants feature the original sauce on their tables and locals aren’t adverse to using it as a condiment for all three meals. In between Texas Pete-inspired and -spiced meals (see “Where to Eat”), Winston-Salem offers an array of sightseeing options.
Situated between modern downtown Winston-Salem and historic Old Salem, the Winston-Salem Visitor Center at 200 Brookstown Avenue is a great place to start (it’s in a renovated 1837 cotton mill). Once loaded down with brochures, maps, and information, be sure to ask about the Art-O-Mat machine downstairs--this unique machine (there are many throughout downtown) dispenses one-of-a-kind miniature pieces of art for just five bucks.
It’s an easy stroll from the Visitor Center to Old Salem Museums & Gardens, which is much like it was back in the early-1800s when it was a thriving Moravian community. Highlights include: simply strolling the historic town and chatting with appropriately attired interpreters, four museums, and lots of shopping (though we didn‘t find any Texas Pete in the historically correct village). Be sure to sample the ginger-laced and paper-thin Moravian Cookies.
Up in the very modern downtown area, it’s fun to stroll the thriving Downtown Arts District, with an eclectic collection of studios, galleries, and restaurants. If you shop ‘til you drop, quench your thirst or snack attack by dropping into the huge new Foothills Brewing location on Fourth Street (see “Where to drink”).
Further afield, varied historical highlights include: Reynolda Village (once part of tobacco baron R.J. Reynolds’ 1,067-acre estate--his house and gardens are nearby); Historic Bethabara Park (where the first North Carolina Moravians settled); and the Winston Cup Museum (which preserves early NASCAR history).
Where to Stay
The thriving downtown Winston-Salem area offers a mix of modern chain alternatives. However, we found two more historic options that make for a unique Winston-Salem stay (even if they don’t put a small bottle of Texas Pete on your pillow each night).
The first is The Brookstown Inn, which is located in the same old cotton warehouse as the Visitor Center. Highlights of this convenient 71-room hotel include spacious rooms, lots of exposed brick walls, friendly service, a wine and cheese reception each evening (featuring North Carolina wines), late-night cookies and milk, and a big make-your-own breakfast (bring your own Texas Pete for the sausage-and-egg biscuit).
The second historic option is just around the corner. It’s called the Henry F. Shaffner House Bed & Breakfast. Built from 1907 to 1909, it was the home of Shaffner, a co-founder of Wachovia Loan and Trust Company. Hosts Michelle Watson and Chris Hughes welcome overnight guests with a tour of the sprawling house, wine and cheese reception (including NC wines), a choice of differently decorated rooms, and a hearty homemade breakfast (prepared by Chris).
Where to Eat
It seems like area chefs use Texas Pete in practically everything on the menu. Sweet Potatoes in the heart of Downtown Arts District provides a perfect (and spicy) example. Co-owners Vivian Joiner and Stephanie Tyson crank out southern-inspired down-home (but uptown) cooking. The Mambo Chicken sandwich features a huge fried boneless chicken breast on a Kaiser roll--with a side of spicy Mambo Sauce that definitely has its share of Texas Pete (Vivian calls it a “sauce with attitude”). Chef Stephanie proudly uses Texas Pete in many other dishes and she only uses North Carolina sweet potatoes (including the mix for biscuits in her Hot Brown version of a Kentucky favorite).
South by Southwest is another delectable downtown option. The menu is Mexican and southwestern, but with a few southern accents. Their Grilled Fish Soft Tacos feature local fresh fish caught in the Atlantic less than 200 miles to the east. They also have an excellent premium tequila list and a range of creative “Cactus Cocktails” (try the Spider-Byte - trust us). If owner/chef Pat Burke is around, he’s considered the local expert on all things chile pepper.
The ‘burbs of Winston-Salem feature several other zesty restaurants. From barbecue to some seriously spiced wings and more, they don’t stop pouring the Texas Pete when you leave the confines of downtown proper.
For some classic ’Q,’ it’s hard to beat Hill’s Lexington Barbecue, which is within sniffing distance of Texas Pete HQ. Prepared in the Lexington, North Carolina, style (think vinegar), the Hill family has been serving up chopped barbecue sandwiches and more since 1951 (with Texas Pete on the counter and many of the company’s employees lunchtime regulars).
Over on the other side of town, East Coast Wings & Grill is an up-and-coming franchise operation headquartered in Winston-Salem. Using the motto, “America’s Best Wings™,” East Coast Wings features jumbo-style wings with more than 45 varieties of sauces and heat indexes that range from Virgin to Volcanic™ to ECW Insanity™ (the menu says you have to sign a disclaimer to order even one). They’re always adding flavors at this casual eatery, but our favorites were Teri Jalapeno™, Mango Habanero™, Chile Garlic™, and Chipotle™. Just across the street, Little Richards Lexington BBQ can provide another zesty Q fix.
For something completely different, check out River Birch Lodge. With the feel of a mountain lodge plopped down in suburbia, wild venison, bison, fresh game fish, and more grace the menu. However, it’s the saucy Texas Pete Wings that start many meals for locals in the know.
You have to head out of town (about 20 minutes or so) to get to Starr’s, but it’s well worth the journey. Located in historic Mocksville and right on quaint Main Street, Chef Starr has created somewhat of a Texas Pete shrine on her menu and plates. “You really should ask what Texas Pete is not in,” the spicy red-haired chef exclaimed during our visit (we couldn’t help but notice her pretty hair is incredibly similar to Texas Pete’s coloring). Highlights of the Starr’s menu (with and without Texas Pete) include: Pickle’s Fried Pickles; Fried Green Tomatoes (on a salad or in a sandwich); and Stuffed Fried Chicken (crammed with honeyed ham and pimento cheese). Suffice to say, both the chef and food are co-stars in this spicy restaurant.
What & Where to drink
Many people are learning of the high-quality wines now being produced in North Carolina. Winston-Salem is at the epicenter of this growth, in that it’s part of the Yadkin Valley (currently, the state’s only American viticulture area). Many area wines are featured on the wine lists of local restaurants, but winery visits also provide a great way to taste and buy wines (we found the local Viognier went very well with spicy food).
There are more than 20 from which to choose, but several worth a visit include: Shelton Vineyards (stunning vineyards and a tasty restaurant serving their wines and others); RayLen Vineyards and Winery (we particularly liked their Viogner and the fruity Category 5 red blend); and Childress Vineyards (founded by Richard Childress of NASCAR fame, tasting, shopping, and dining are all offered here).
As mentioned, we also enjoyed quaffing a couple of cold ones (and some pub grub) at downtown’s relatively new (2004) Foothills Brewing. Their Salem Gold and Torch Pilsner pair particularly well with fiery food (and the menu just happens to feature Paul’s Spicy 1/3 Ostrich Burger with jalapeños).
Though Texas Pete brought us and other hot sauce pilgrims to Winston-Salem, the restaurant and beverage scene kept us busy for many days. And, isn’t that what a zesty destination should provide to all chile pepper pursuits?
By Lynn Seldon
added: December 12, 2008
updated: August 27, 2010
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