Diablo Foods store celebrates 50 years in Lafayette
By Lou Fancher
Presiding over a table at which three generations of the family gather, 95-year-old Ed Stokes maintains the upbeat energy that has led to Diablo Foods’ five-decade history.
“We’re happy to go to work and it spills over on the customers,” he says.
His wife, Betty Stokes, exudes equal glow, softened by a habit of pushing away attention as if it is coleslaw gone bad in the Lafayette-based independent grocery store’s much-loved deli. “I never felt myself to be a leader. I follow. Working in the store, raising my family, Ed never corrected me much; I knew what was right.”
Asked as they enter the store’s 50th anniversary year to share — and avoid interrupting — individual memories of survival in the retail food industry, the Stokes family does what it always does. They bite their tongues and work hard to satisfy a request.
Connie Stokes Collier says when she began working in her father’s store it was a man’s world. “I wanted to be an equal doer. In the early 1980s we didn’t have anything beyond head lettuce or a can. We didn’t have housewares.”
Out of her “woman’s touch” sprang “Foo Foo La La.” Boutique items sprinkled throughout the store include decorative paper products, candles, environment-friendly cleaning supplies and more. “I love buying,” she says. “Especially shoes. I’ve always had a fantasy of having a shoe store because shoes never go bad. I’d take along the customer service my father has instilled in us. Mom and Dad being from the South, that hospitality has a lot to do with our success.”
Collier’s brother, company President Dan Stokes, worked his way from stock boy to vice president by 1985. “We had four stores at the time (Lafayette, Danville and two in Concord). It was a lot of work. I didn’t want to disappoint my mom and dad; that was the driver.” Later, closing the Concord store after 37 years and Danville after 16, was stressful. “You have to uproot people. We moved all the employees to Lafayette; customers came because we’re friendly and nice.”
Stokes says staying a step ahead of competitors requires constant improvements like a pavilion added recently and plans for upgraded check out stands and a new salad bar. Carrying local and organic produce, fresh seafood, made-from-scratch deli items and sushi, custom-made sandwiches and flowers adds essential panache. Most vital to Diablo Foods is maintaining relationships.
“Our customers watched us grow up and we watched their kids grow and now shop in the store. It’s a tight community.”
Deli Manager Karen Crofford was the first female bagger. “It was July 1988 and I was 23,” she recalls. “The store then was like it is today: homey. I had just had a baby. I felt like I had a second family. I ended up being here forever.”
Crofford hits the ground running at 5:30 a.m. “People tell us what they want: I’ve learned to be a good listener. Being mindful, positive, has helped my personality. That’s something I’ve taken away for my kids and for my life.”
Francis Motley, of Lafayette, was simply happy to take away food for dinner when she first shopped at Diablo Foods in 1979.
“I arrived from Kentucky with four hungry children and no food. I went to three grocery stores and none of them would cash my (Kentucky) check. Someone in the parking lot at Safeway told me to go to Diablo Foods.”
Ed Stokes told her, “Get as many groceries as you want and write a check for as much as you need over the amount,” she recalls. “I wrote a check for $200 over the amount. That’s why I’ve been an avid customer for over 30 years. Everyone was so kind, personable. The same thing is there now. My husband a few years ago died of a rare brain disease and Daniel, every time I stopped there afterward, would plop flowers in my cart.”
Store Manager Daniel Collier, 36, didn’t expect to join the family business. “I wanted to have my own path. I didn’t realize it’s more than a store.” After graduating from St. Mary’s College with a degree in finance, a trip to Europe altered his perspective. “In Europe, you see people working in the shop their great, great grandfather started. I realized how continuing the tradition was more than just working in a store. Diablo Foods is a monument in the community.”
Founder Stokes says commitment to shared goals and ambitions make it easy to pass the family business to the next generation. Being once honored as Lafayette Citizen of the Year is his favorite public achievement. His wife says increasing opportunities and respect for businesswomen and her grandson joining are the biggest thrills. “It means Diablo Foods will continue, improve, go up more and more,” she says.
Contributing objectivity to the family frame, Dan Stoke’s wife, Sibhan Stokes, says, “Betty is the rock. Ed is the figurehead. His love of hard work is what everyone feeds off of. Dan’s gift is firing up employees. Connie understands the sophisticated community that wants choice and quality. Daniel connects to third generation shoppers who choose us because it’s a personal experience in this (digital) world. There’s palpable, big heart they can feel.”
Along with positive vibe projected by staff, loyalty to vendors, generosity to nonprofits and meeting customer requests for high quality food products, it’s the store’s culture about which the family ultimately agrees. “You can buy Cheerios anywhere but really, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling,” says Daniel Collier. “It’s the people that make the store special.”