October 4, 2014 Updated: October 4, 2014 10:50pm
Photo: Photo Courtesy Of Anita Valencia
SAN ANTONIO — Attached is a photo of a house at the corner of Cincinnati Avenue and Sabinas Street. Although the house looks abandoned and overgrown with vegetation, the Bluebonnet Potato Chip Co. sign remains. When I was growing up in the early 1940s, my father had a grocery store, and there was a salesman who delivered Bluebonnet Potato Chips and gallons of Hawaiian Punch. I seem to remember going once to pick up an order for our store. Is it possible this was the place? Incidentally, I remember the chips as being crispy and so tasty, nothing has come close to them in taste.
— Anita Valencia
During the first half of the 20th century, before the building of interstate highways, many food products were manufactured and sold regionally. These were unique brands, not found in other parts of the country, and most would give way to nationally produced or franchised brands, more efficiently marketed and distributed.
There’s a glimpse of small-world grocery sales in an advertisement for a Solo-Serve “Sale of Progress and Manufacturer’s Exposition” published in the San Antonio Light, June 9, 1938. The discount retailer promised sample packages of Bluebonnet Potato Chips as well as Mexican foods at the Gebhardt Chili Powder booth, “tasty cakes” from the Brown Cracker and Candy Co., “special treats” from Pioneer Flour Mills and servings of Aviation Coffee — all made by companies headquartered in San Antonio.
The house with the Bluebonnet sign was where the chips and beverage bases were made, says Carmen Oertling Mason, daughter of Walter Oertling, who owned and ran the company from 1945 until shortly before his death in 1979. The company did not sell Hawaiian Punch but manufactured and sold its own brands of punch and fruit-drink bases.
Why chips and drinks? Besides the obvious synergy, Mason says that’s what the company was making before her father bought it. Oertling graduated from Louisiana State University with a master’s degree in chemistry during the Great Depression. Finding it impossible to get a job in his field, he went on the road as a representative of the California Fruit Growers Exchange. The original company was one he called on, presumably to sell fruit extracts for the beverage bases. When the owners wanted to sell, Oertling bought them out. Mason says it’s her understanding he “tweaked” the original company’s formulas over the years, adding new flavors as the beverage line expanded.
Mary Son, who was married to Oertling’s late son Bob, says she was told the building on Cincinnati “was never a home (and) was originally built for a dry cleaner’s.” When it went out of business, the property was purchased by the founder of the Bluebonnet Potato Chip Co. As the second owner, Oertling later purchased adjacent buildings to serve as warehouses; his family home was around the corner on West Ashby Place.
The corner building on Cincinnati served as office, factory and retail shop, where neighborhood children could stop in to buy a snack. The Oertling children spent a lot of time there, especially in the room where the potatoes were kept. “We liked to climb around on the bags,” Mason says. “We weren’t supposed to, but it was the only room with air conditioning.”
The company produced a line of Carmen’s Chips, named after the owner’s wife and daughter. If the chips were still being made, they could command a premium price as an artisanal, locally sourced product. Oertling bought his potatoes from area farmers, most among the Belgian-American truck-farming community. The company had peeling and slicing machines, but everything else was done by hand. Workers dipped baskets of thinly sliced potatoes into large fryers to cook, turned them out onto a table, salted them and put the finished chips into bags. They came out “somewhere between a Lay’s and a Kettle (potato chip) in color,” says Mason.
The company also made corn chips, including what might have been the first chili-flavored chips, and held the franchise to make and sell Rold Gold pretzels in this area, and added raspa (snow-cone) syrups to its beverage side. By the early 1980s, the chips had been discontinued because of competition from national brands and the company focused on its drink bases. After Walter Oertling’s death, his widow ran the business for 10 more years. Their sons Bob — who died in 1991 — and Jim took over successively. When the latter decided to close the company in 1997, former in-law Mary and her second husband, Tim Son, bought it.
The building on Cincinnati already had been sold, says Mary Son, and the new owner didn’t “make the necessary repairs for us to remain operational in that location.” The Son Beverage Co. moved in 1999 to a location on Oaklawn Drive off Fredericksburg Road and in 2009 relocated to Alamo Downs Industrial Park. The company still makes the Jell-Craft line of punch bases as well as concentrates for aguas frescas, cocktails and frozen drinks, slushes and granitas, teas and coffee flavorings.
The chips, sadly, can’t come back. The recipe was not in the formula book the Sons inherited when they purchased the company, says Mary Son, nor was it found in the archived papers of the old company.