When it came to food and family, Clifton Bolner was the true spice of life.
That the founder of Bolner’s Fiesta Brand happened to build an empire of herbs, meat rubs and other spices and seasonings in his hometown of San Antonio was just part of his legacy.
Bolner died Tuesday at his Monte Vista home, surrounded by several generations of family gathered for his passing. He was 94.
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Most San Antonians know Bolner best for his flavorful Fiesta Brand products, a colorful array of ground cloves and turmeric, whole oregano and rosemary and other enhancements whose strong smells have wafted over grocery store aisles and kitchen stoves for almost 70 years.
But the man whom friends and business associates came to know as “Clif” also was a doting father, grandfather and great-grandfather whom family members affectionately called “Popo,” Italian for “wise one” and a nod to Bolner’s family roots, which go back to his grandparents who emigrated to San Antonio from France, Italy and Mexico.
In that sense, Bolner’s personal and professional lives were one and the same, as much about bringing loved ones together over spiced-up home cooking as keeping that timeless tradition alive with a business that remains a family affair.
“Yes, he had a successful business career. And yes, he was very civic-minded and a philanthropist. But … the things we really remember best are of him as a dad and a grandfather,” said Deb Bolner Prost, Bolner’s eldest daughter and one of his seven children by birth.
Clifton J. Bolner (July 30, 1928 - Jan. 10, 2023)
Visitation, Friday, Jan. 13, 6 p.m., Rosary 7 p.m., at Our Lady of Grace Church, 223 E. Summit Ave.
Mass, Saturday, Jan. 14, 9 a.m., at Our Lady of Grace Church. Burial to follow at Holy Cross Cemetery, 17501 Nacogdoches Road
Prost noted her childhood was full of fun and, of course, food, often with her father at the heart of it. She recalled fond memories of her Popo playing on the floor with his children and then grandchildren, as giant pots of chili, spaghetti and pinto beans percolated on the stove and lured neighbors with their mouth-watering aromas.
“When family and food are together, that’s when you can get to know each better,” Prost said. “And we were eating and laughing. It was this synergy of food and laughter.”
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San Antonio roots
Born in San Antonio on July 30, 1928, Bolner grew up on the South Side, delivering groceries for a store run by his father, Joe Bolner, and other Bolner family members. After graduating from Central Catholic High School, the young Bolner pursued a business degree at Texas A&M University.
Around that time, he also pursued the hand of Rosalie Richter, a young woman he had known since their days at St. Gerard Elementary and whose family acquired the ButterKrust franchise more than a century ago.
In 1949, Bolner secured his degree from A&M, a commission in the Air Force and a marriage license to wed Richter, Prost noted. The couple were married for 59 years until her death from Alzheimer’s disease in 2008. Bolner later married Mary Jo Biediger in 2010. She died last year on Dec. 29 at age 92.
Bolner split his early adulthood between working at Kelly AFB and at the family grocery store as a butcher and then business partner. After his dad gave him his share of the shop, Bolner sold it to a couple of uncles to launch Bolner’s Fiesta Spices in 1955.
What started with Bolner, his wife Rosalie and just a handful of employees in a production plant the size of a four-bedroom apartment grew to what's now a veritable world trade, one with more than 600 products and imports from more than 60 countries, including bay leaves from Turkey, black pepper from India, cinnamon from Sri Lanka and chiles from Mexico.
All the while, most of Bolner's children and now grandchildren have kept the family name going on the merchandise and the masthead. His eldest son, Tim Bolner, is president of Bolner's Fiesta Products, while Tim's youngest brother, Chris, is vice president and oversees marketing, sales and distribution.
“Dad taught us all patience, hard work and dedication," Chris said.
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Growing the spice business wasn’t easy. According to a 2022 Texas Monthly article, Clifton Bolner had to borrow half of the $3,000 it took to secure the fledgling spice company from its retiring owner at the time. Even then, he turned to family for help, whether it was his dad pitching in for a rebuilt pepper grinder, or Deb and her siblings packing that pepper into bags when they were kids.
Ever the gregarious charmer (Prost said all her girlfriends used to call her dad “the silver-haired fox”), Bolner built his business by pitching directly to grocers and even stocking their shelves on occasion.
“He was still going in to check stores even after he retired” around 2015, Prost said.
And while Prost noted that her father loved his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren equally, his favorite product by far was garlic.
In 1960, San Antonio newspapers lauded Bolner for distributing Fiesta’s 1 millionth head of garlic after just five years in business. His golden rule for making the most of the pungent bulb: Always store garlic in the refrigerator.
He also made sure his family was just as savvy about spices. Chris Bolner noted they all had to learn their flavor profiles, including the many ways salt, pepper, onion and comino can affect a food's taste.
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Maestro of music, man of faith
Bolner was a maestro of music as well as seasonings. He played clarinet and saxophone in the Fightin’ Texas Aggie Band and later served as vice chairman of the board for the former San Antonio Symphony Society. The philanthropist also served on the boards of the Cancer Therapy Research Center, Fiesta San Antonio Commission and Witte Museum.
Bolner was just as passionate about his Catholic faith. He was an active member of Our Lady of Grace Church for nearly 60 years. And in 1982, he received the Brotherhood Honors Award from the San Antonio chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, along with B.J. “Red” McCombs and Morris Beldon, for “promoting understanding and cooperation among people of all faiths,” according to a write-up in the San Antonio Express.
In a statement to the Express-News, Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller said it has been "one of the great privileges of my life having known Clifton."
"He is a gentleman, a family man and a man of the Church," García-Siller said. "I remember recently visiting his home and being with him in prayer, giving him the sacraments of Reconciliation and Holy Communion. He will be rightfully remembered for his loyalty to the Church and will be greatly missed in our community."
Though no doubt Bolner will live on in the hearts and, yes, kitchens of those who know his name.
“Every minute of his life, he contributed to food, Fiesta and family," Chris Bolner said.
San Antonio would expect nothing less from a man who embodied such good taste.
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