“Every spice factory smells the same,” Mike Bolner ’73 said. It doesn’t matter where the factory is or how many different blends are made there. “You always smell garlic, pepper and comino. Great combination.” That potent mixture had hit me earlier when I approached the front door of the Bolner’s Fiesta Brand headquarters in San Antonio, Texas, and really sank in as I waited in the entryway. It wasn’t a bad smell, but it was strong enough to stay with me for the rest of the tour. Decades in and around the factory had rendered Mike mostly immune to the pungent air, but even he still sneezed now and then.
The entryway of the company’s second home, built in 1964, was decked out in wood paneling. Framed newspaper clippings, awards and community memorabilia covered the walls, all surrounding a small stained glass window depicting the company’s recognizable mascot: a red and green dancer in traditional “ballet folklórico” garb. You’ve most likely seen her dancing across semi-translucent plastic bottles of spices and seasonings at grocery stores across the nation, along with Fiesta’s wordmark in simple, festive colors.
While larger food brands like Pepsi have continually updated their brands to keep them fresh over the decades, the Bolner family has left theirs relatively untouched, just how they like it. Except for a few tweaks here and there, the logo is the same as it was when Mike’s father, the late Clifton “Clif” Bolner ’49, bought it in 1955 as part of a small local plant just across the freeway from where we were sitting. The biggest change to the Fiesta logo came soon after: the addition of “Bolner’s” in Bolner’s Fiesta Brand, a gesture of accountability for and pride in each product’s quality. And though the company has since transformed into a massive globe-spanning operation dedicated to delivering flavor, it remains a humble family business at its heart.
Sugar and Spice
The accumulated accolades and commemorative keepsakes from Clif’s community involvement continued along the hallway walls as Mike and his son, Jeff Bolner ’04, led me toward a conference room. Before Mike retired, he was the company’s vice president of sales and marketing, which showed in his courteous, affable demeanor. He had attended Texas A&M University’s business school with the full intention of transferring the skills he learned in Aggieland to Fiesta, earning his management degree in 1973. The second oldest of Clif’s seven children, he shares the closest resemblance to his father, with his silver mustache constantly curving upward atop his friendly smile.
Inside the conference room where the bulk of our conversation took place, the sea of plaques and pictures gave way to sparse but characteristic decorations: a copy of the U.S. Constitution, a Texas flag and a map of 19th-century San Antonio, which Mike used as a visual aid for a quick history lesson. “That right there is where Santa Anna watched the Battle of the Alamo,” he said, pointing to the San Fernando Cathedral in modern-day downtown. Another wall sported two framed photos, both family portraits taken decades apart in the warehouse I was about to explore. Just like the Texas A&M campus that Clif, Mike and Jeff had all called home at one point, much of the Fiesta headquarters was dedicated to honoring its past.
Jeff has made a name for himself, however, in helping push the company into the future. Where Mike relayed anecdotes from the family lore and recalled relationships he helped the company build, his son showed an affinity for the nitty-gritty details of manufacturing. “As long as I can remember, I’ve always liked taking things apart and putting them back together,” Jeff said, giving the classic engineer origin story. Taking after his father, he graduated from Texas A&M with a mechanical engineering degree in 2004, joining the family business soon after. “My uncle Tim built some of the machines here himself, and he showed me how they worked.” As plant engineers, Jeff and his cousin Greg follow in Tim’s footsteps, revitalizing old machinery and monitoring the production of thousands of bottles and bags on their journey from the factory to customers’ kitchen shelves and barbecue pits.
While the family’s patriach has passed on, his presence lingered throughout the conversation and in the older parts of the building, which stood almost exactly as they had more than six decades before. Clif didn’t just put the Bolners on the path to seasoning supremacy; he also set an example for how they would give back to the community and provide quality service no matter what. He inherited these traits from a long line of doers and dreamers who journeyed far and wide to find stable livelihoods and, upon finding success, invariably dedicated it to others.
An Italian Farmer in Mexico
In the late 19th century, Mexico was ruled by Porfirio Díaz, a general who led a successful coup to overthrow the recently reelected president—arguing that reelection was a slight against democracy—before promptly serving as president for seven terms. Díaz was essentially a dictator, but he felt he could win over his subjects’ hearts and secure his seat of power if he could invigorate the nation’s stagnating economy. With this goal in mind, he invited Italian farmers like little Giuseppe “Joe” Bolner and his parents to Mexico in the 1880s, providing cheap land and resources in exchange for their world-renowned green thumbs.
This initiative to improve Mexico’s agriculture fared poorly with the country’s native farmers, who soon ran Joe and his family off their land near San Luis Potosí when the political winds shifted. The Bolner clan relocated to Texas, where Joe found work as a cook alongside other Italian immigrants on the “Macaroni Line,” a railway running from San Antonio to Houston. From there, he tried his fortune in Louisiana and Tennessee before returning to the Lone Star State to join his brother, settle down and start a family outside San Antonio in Berg’s Mill. He and his wife had eight children, the fifth being Joe Jr., Clif’s father.
In 1909, Joe Sr. opened Bolner’s Grocery and Meat Market on South Flores Street, where it served the public for more than a century. Joe Jr. got married, and he and his wife Josephine welcomed two children, including Clif, into the world just before the Great Depression hit. The meat market later passed down to Joe Jr. and his two brothers, providing early job opportunities to young Clif and his numerous relatives.
That meat market, still owned by Clif’s cousins, survives to this day on South Flores, its brick façade and wooden scaffolding standing alone on a corner by the freeway, relics of the San Antonio of yesteryear. Unfortunately, you can’t walk in and buy a fresh steak anymore; COVID-19 shut down its public storefront indefinitely. The business now delivers quality cuts exclusively to local restaurants and hotels, but its sign is still there, along with three generations of memories made and lessons learned. It's where Clif adopted the Bolner work ethic, sweeping floors and trimming beef for $5 a day. But when it came time to build on his family’s legacy, he set his sights on a small military college some 170 miles away.
How It’s Made
As we donned personal protective equipment, left the quiet and calm of the office, and entered the expanded warehouse area that stretched for a few football fields behind it, the factory’s smell took on more power but affected me less and less. The real challenge was staying out of the way. Mike and Jeff scooted me around scores of workers in hard hats and hair nets. Forklifts turned corners only to meet the three of us scurrying to the side like deer in headlights on a farm road.
When the Bolners found a safe spot to stand and yell over the machinery, they pointed out each room’s purpose. “This is the blending room!” Mike said as we watched workers dump massive bags of ground garlic and other good stuff into a 5,000-pound mixer before emptying the blend into thick barrels. “This is the pepper grinding room!” he said in front of a 20-foot-tall machine that churned out more than 800 pounds of fresh ground black pepper every hour. “This is the bottling room!” And lo, there were hundreds of bottles gliding neatly down the conveyor belt with the instantly recognizable packaging materializing as they marched along.
As Mike led me around, Jeff alternated between explaining the inner workings of each machine and breaking off from our trio to fiddle with equipment and manually remove visually defective products from the line. It was clear this was his domain, each part of the production line presenting the same burning question: How could this be faster, better and more efficient? The newer machines and reworked older ones were presumably his team’s answer to the question, and they were spellbinding in a way that’s familiar to anyone who’s enjoyed an episode of “How It’s Made” on a late-night TV binge.
One particularly ingenious apparatus stood in an area devoted to chili pods, which the Bolners sell in droves every winter. Ask yourself this: How would you go about taking whole chile pasilla peppers with irregular shapes and weights and delivering them in uniform 1.5-ounce bags? You need to provide at least that much weight to fulfill your promise on the label, but you don’t want to overpack the bags and lose money. For a while, Fiesta workers individually weighed out loads of peppers, but adding and subtracting them one at a time to level out each bag was time- and labor-intensive.
Instead, the Bolners opted for a machine consisting of a conveyor belt and about a dozen miniature scales on both sides, each complete with its own conveyor belt feeding toward a central belt. A single worker simply places one or two random pepper pods on each scale. All the scales are connected to a computer, which takes each measurement, calculates which peppers most closely add up to 1.5 ounces, and feeds the right ones onto the takeaway belt and into a plastic bag. The worker then simply adds more peppers to the empty scales, and the process continues. Now, that’s Aggie engineering at its finest.
A Chili Truck and a Dream
Clif graduated high school in May 1945, just three months before the United States would deploy two atomic bombs in Japan and bring World War II to a close. Those on the home front couldn’t know that, though, so Clif and a few of his Central Catholic High School classmates went to Texas A&M for summer school thinking they would earn some college credits before receiving draft letters. They were all talented bandsmen in high school, with Clif playing clarinet and saxophone, but none enrolled with hopes of joining the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band. When Clif and his friends saw the band practice on the way to morning chow, however, they soon changed their minds. “We were so impressed that we decided right then and there to sign up,” he remembered in an interview shortly before his passing.
When the war ended, Texas A&M declared a holiday, and the boys returned home to San Antonio to celebrate. Looking for company, Fish Bolner called up an old friend in Rosalie Richter, whose immigrant family made a name for themselves in baking with their popular Richter’s ButterKrust sandwich bread. The two continued courting after Clif returned to campus, where he kept his grades high, served as an executive officer in the band and eventually walked the stage as a Distinguished Military Graduate. On the weekends, he returned home to the Alamo City to work long shifts at the meat market, building business relationships that later served him well.
Clif proposed to Rosalie during his junior year, and the two married after he graduated in 1949. He went on to serve in the Army Air Corps, splitting his time between Kelly and Lackland air bases as a reserve officer and overseeing the meat market, of which he had inherited his share from Joe Jr. Keeping in tradition with his family, he and Rosalie soon had three children, putting some pressure on Clif to stake out a business of his own that could provide for his expanding family.
That business came in the form of Fiesta Products, a 6-month-old venture that consisted of four employees, a Chevrolet panel van and a production plant the size of a four-bedroom apartment. Negotiations moved quickly once Clif and Rosalie caught wind of the operation being up for sale, and the Bolners soon found themselves in the spice business in July 1955. With just four women packing products by hand, the couple could only produce about 55 dozen products per day at first. Those women ultimately helped the Bolners create their debut product—a quick chili mix—by bringing in their own versions of menudo dishes and comparing recipes.
Today, reigning supermarkets would make or break an upstart like Fiesta, but back then, the couple found swift success by pitching their products directly to local grocers whom Clif had previously built relationships with and meeting the unmet demand for high-quality spices and seasoning blends among South Texas’ Mexican American and Hispanic populations. With his nose set firmly on the grindstone, Clif drove the company van to hand-deliver his products around town and throughout the region, traversing its streets and highways with a trunk full of chili mix and a vision for what his little company could be.
It Doesn’t Get Fresher
As Mike and Jeff led me through their shipping department’s endless maze of products, almost all packaged and ready for in-store displays, they dished out the kind of sociological research you can only get from the back end of a macroscale food business. “Most people think barbecue season starts on Memorial Day weekend, but it actually kicks off with Easter Sunday,” Mike remarked, passing an industrial pallet of steak seasoning. Inside the warehouse, winter announces its arrival not with colder temperatures and Christmas cheer but with mounting stockpiles of corn husks destined to sell out quickly in the weeks leading up to New Year’s Day.
Bolner’s Fiesta Brand now sells more than 600 products with ingredients sourced from more than 60 countries. As Clif and Rosalie built Fiesta from the ground up, they consistently put their profits back into their church, local schools, the San Antonio community and Texas A&M students. As Clif once explained, “Without the local community’s support, it is impossible for the business to thrive. If you support them, they will support you in turn.”
The couple’s contributions to Aggieland alone include three scholarships for students in the Corps of Cadets, one for Mays Business School students, and four Endowed Opportunity Awards named after Mike and three of his siblings who graduated from Texas A&M: Cindy Bolner Meeh ’78, Beverly Bolner ’82 and Mary Beth Bolner ’88. Clif’s love of Texas A&M has also been passed down to his grandchildren, with five graduating from his beloved alma mater thus far: Jeff ’04, Josh Meeh ’07, Elizabeth Curtis ’09, Caroline Bauer ’13 and Christopher Bolner II ’20.
Rosalie passed away in 2008 after battling Alzheimer’s. Clif joined her in January 2023, having long since retired to watch Fiesta grow from afar. Mike has spent his own retirement taking up his father’s philanthropic activities, serving on numerous community boards and establishing three scholarships for Aggies from the San Antonio area. “My dad always told me that if you give a scholarship, there’s a good chance that student will give a scholarship to the next generation,” he said.
One generation to the next—that’s how the Bolners have done business from the start. When Joe Sr. was working long hours on the “Macaroni Line” to make a living, he was unknowingly making that living for all the Bolners to come and the millions of customers they would serve. The Fiesta facility may have smelled and appeared the same as any other spice factory, but it was the living embodiment of a dream passed down through centuries.
The Bolner family still firmly holds the reins of the company today, with five of Clif’s children and five grandchildren involved in every aspect of production, operations, sales and marketing. And in case you were wondering: Yes, Uncle Chris of Gourmet Steak Seasoning fame is real. He's stepped into Mike's role following his retirement, taking up his older brother's role handling sales and marketing.
Moments before Mike and Jeff showed me the door and bid me farewell, Mike snatched a box of ground pepper bottles right off the production line. He then walked back over, presented the box with outstretched hands and flashed a grin that could knock you off your chair. “Here you go!” He yelled over the machines. “It doesn’t get fresher than that!”