Texas Pete is a North Carolinian, and he’s being sued
Did you know that the iconic hot sauce was conceived of and made in North Carolina, not Texas? A new class action lawsuit claims most people don't, and that its name is deceiving people.
If you really want to check someone’s North Carolina cred, ask them where Texas Pete hot sauce is made. They might be able to figure out through context clues and stammer out “Uh, North Carolina?” like a nervous Jeopardy! contestant. The correct, informed, confident answer is Winston-Salem. This has always been the case.
And yet, Texas Pete. Texas is right there in the name. Its logo is a dude in a cowboy hat twirlin’ a lasso. There is nothing about this product that conjures any sort of North Carolina feeling. There’s only one real clue that this product isn’t as yee-haw and giddy-yup as it seems: If you turn it over and look at the label, you’ll notice that it’s made by T.W. Garner Food Co. of Winston-Salem.
Most people, when I’ve told them this, let this information roll around their brains for a second or two before saying “Huh!” A few people might keep talking about it. Most, though, let it go.
Some guy in Los Angeles did not let it go. He has filed a a federal class action lawsuit over it. He has, his lawyers solemnly declare, been deceived.
That suit, filed in the Central District of California, is worth reading in full, if only because I have never seen anyone so mad about a bottle of hot sauce. For fairness here, I’ve contacted T.W. Garner Food Co., which said its lawyers are aware of the lawsuit but has no statement at this time. The lawyers who are representing the plaintiff here, a guy from Los Angeles named Phillip White, have not yet responded to a pair of emails requesting comment and an interview with their client.
In the complaint, though, the plaintiff’s lawyers come out swinging:
By representing that its Texas Pete® brand hot sauce products (“Products”) are Texas products, when they are not, Defendant has cheated its way to a market-leading position in the $3 billion-dollar hot-sauce industry at the expense of law-abiding competitors and consumers nationwide who desire authentic Texas hot sauce and reasonably, but incorrectly, believe that is what they are getting when they purchase Texas Pete.
By way of its false marketing and labeling, Defendant knowingly and intentionally capitalizes on consumers’ desire to partake in the culture and authentic cuisine of one of the most prideful states in America.
Have you ever met a Texan? They just won’t shut up about it! Texas this, Texas that. (If you really want to stir up that pride, insist to a Texan that you’ve actually been in the basement of the Alamo.)
Although Defendant brands the Products “Texas Pete,” there is surprisingly nothing Texas about them: unknown to consumers, the Products are standard Louisiana-style hot sauces, made with ingredients sourced outside the state of Texas, at a factory in North Carolina.
So here’s the situation. According to the lawsuit, a guy named Phillip White walked into a Ralph’s grocery story in Los Angeles back in September 2021. He bought a bottle of Texas Pete for about $3. He thought what he was getting was a product made in Texas. If he’d only known that it wasn’t actually a hot sauce from Texas, he never would have bought it, the suit says. Or, maybe, he would have, but it wouldn’t have been worth the $3 he paid. He may buy Texas Pete again in the future, the suit says, so long as it complies with state and federal advertising and consumer protection laws. Phillip cares deeply about his hot sauce’s adherence to regional and national marketing statutes, it would seem.
It would stand to reason that some people do not know that Texas Pete is made in North Carolina. But how many people don’t know? As evidence that the “defendant’s labeling and advertising deceives reasonable consumers… into believing that the Products are Texas products,” the attorneys for White presented a video from an authoritative source: the NC History Museum’s TikTok Guy.
Here’s the history: Back in 1929, the Garner family of Winston-Salem wanted to make a hot sauce that sounded spicy. Someone suggested calling it “Mexican Joe,” but literally one of the Garners was like EH, NO, THAT AIN’T ‘MERICAN ENOUGH, and then someone else came up with Texas Pete, and that’s what it’s been ever since.
Ever since it was founded 93 years ago, the company’s been making all of its hot sauce on Indiana Avenue in Winston-Salem. Over the last ten years, Garner has expanded its corporate presence downtown and has no plans to move. And here’s the thing: It’s not like they’ve been hiding any of this. The history section of Texas Pete’s own website starts thusly: “So how is it that a tasty red pepper sauce made in North Carolina happens to be named ‘Texas Pete’ anyway?” It goes on to say that basically, during the depression, the Garner family wanted some spicier sauce to serve at their barbecue stand. The sauce outlived the stand.
The lawsuit says the fact that the company is up front about its North Carolina roots is actually an admission that they know that the name Texas Pete is misleading. “On the “About” tab on Defendant’s website, Defendant admits that it knows (and has always known) its Product labeling is false and deceptive,” the suit says.
Which, really, gets at another issue: What does it mean for a food to be “from” somewhere?
What is “Texas,” really?
Do you remember an ad for Pace picante sauce back in the 1990s? Basically, some poor camp cook is just trying to make some grub, and the cowboys around him are all grumbling about how the sauce he’s using isn’t made in San Antonio like true picante sauce. No! It’s made in New York City. You can tell, because all of the cowboys loudly and simultaneously exclaim “New York City?!”
The ad then ends with one cowboy menacingly instructing his comrades to “get a rope.” Salsa! It’s the only product worth killin’ a man over.
I digress, though. The locavore movement isn’t really an exotic movement anymore. It’s just a baseline thing for a lot of people. In fact, the desire to know the intimate details of your food’s origin story has been around for so long that the Portlandia sketch that skewered the idea is now eleven years old. It’s no longer innovative for a restaurant to list the farmers who provided the ingredients. Farm-to-table is sort of normcore now.
The bigger the company, though, the less credit you can reasonably give them for being “local.” Applebee’s loads up their restaurant walls with, say, jerseys from the nearby high school football teams. They’re not fooling anyone. Coors puts the Rocky Mountains on its cans. (They turn blue! Neat!) But Coors has breweries all around the country now, not just in Colorado. No one would reasonably think that all Nashville Hot Chicken at Boston Market was shipped in overnight from central Tennessee, or that Mountain Dew is made from the dew that accumulates on real mountains. Sure, you might think that Texas Pete is made in Texas. But Texas Pete is in, like, every grocery store in America, sold alongside things like Texas toast. Also, the internet exists, right there on your phone. If you wanted real Texas hot sauce, you could easily, ahem, do your own research.
Local Vibes Only
Of course, there’s another thing at play here: People get pissed when they discover that they didn’t get the thing that they thought they paid for. Let’s use seafood as an example. Last May, WRAL-TV in Raleigh ran a test on shrimp sold at local seafood markets. The workers said it came from the coast, but DNA testing revealed that the shrimp was caught in the Pacific. Then in August, they found out that a restaurant at the state farmer’s market called “N.C. Seafood Restaurant”—a restaurant that displayed a big “Got to be N.C. Seafood” seal—also claimed to be selling coastal fish and shrimp. But the station investigated, and saw boxes out back from India, South America, and China. There was North Carolina catfish, but it was from a farm, not the ocean.
The owner responded this way:
Despite being given repeated opportunities to present his side, he only threatened legal action: "I would just tell you if you say anything negative, I'll sue you."
Okay! The owner later fessed up to serving non-local seafood. Even so, at least one customer said she just sort of figured that a place called the N.C. Seafood Restaurant would be selling, well, seafood from North Carolina.
Which is kind of the point of this case. You’d just sort of assume, without thinking much about it, that Texas Pete is from Texas. “Ultimately,” the suit says, “Defendant trades on the reputation and fascination of Texas by giving consumers the impression that its Products are Texas-made, when the truth is, there is nothing ‘Texas’ about them.”
Also, the suit says, it’s not even Texas-style hot sauce, but rather Louisiana-style, and the ingredients aren’t even from Texas and—I could go on. But, it’s early yet. T.W. Garner hasn’t responded to the suit yet as far as I can tell (It was only filed on September 12). We don’t know who Phillip White is. We don’t know exactly how this case came together, or who else might be behind it, or why it’s happening NOW, some 93 years after Texas Pete was first made. So far, the filing says, no one else has joined in on the class action lawsuit.
If this case goes on, there will be discovery and motions and lots of billable hours. But there’s only one test of true Texasness that can pass muster here. We must find Texas Pete himself, put him under oath, and do this:
(h/t Long Carolina truther Henry Gargan, who tweeted this into my feed)
NOTE: If this newsletter becomes an exhibit in this legal case, I would just like to say that, through the transitive property, the History Museum TikTok Guy and I are both legal scholars now and can be hired as expert witnesses.