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CHILE DAYS AHEAD

HOW AN OLD FAMILY RECIPE STOKED THE FIRES OF A NATIONAL FOOD OBSESSION.

Florence Nixon moved from Aurora to Sequim, Washington, eight years ago. Her husband, a retired Air Force major, was ready for adventure. The new house was beautiful, and they also owned a state-of-the-art motor home. Children and friends visited often. Yet Florence was desperate.

"Some friends were leaving to go back to Denver," she recalls. "And they said, `Hey, can we send you anything?' And I said, `Oh, my God, yes. Could you send me some Stokes Green Chile Sauce With Pork? Please?' And they sent me a whole case."

That was enough to hold the Nixons for three months--"unless you have people over for burritos," Florence points out. "Then you could use two cans in one night." And so, even with a stock of Stokes in her larder, Florence remained nervous.

In the old Aurora days, hitting the sauce had been no big deal. "I just bought it at Albertson's whenever I felt like it," Florence recalls. "When we moved here, I had about twelve cans. When I ran out, I started looking around Washington, but no soap. I took the labels to the local Safeway to see if they could order it. They said no. For a while I made my son Jimmy send it."

Finally, she took the ultimate step and called Stokes-Ellis Foods, headquartered in north Denver, to ask if she could order green-chile sauce by the case. Stokes-Ellis agreed. Now Florence's fix arrives by UPS four or five times a year.

"I have to smother burritos," confirms retired aerospace engineer John Russell Stephens of Cathlamet, Washington. "So I've had it sent to me in at least four states. I called Stokes and asked them, and they said they would, and our love affair began. I've never found anything like it."

"We have maybe 400 customers like that," says Barbara Page, Stokes's chief financial officer. "They move away from Denver and realize they can't make their breakfast burritos anymore."

"We've sent it to D.C., New Jersey, Oregon, Florida," says Bob Page, the company's president and husband of Barbara. "Even our old USDA inspector, who retired and moved to Minnesota. We can't stock it in supermarkets in all those places--it's too expensive. But we will send it by the case if they ask. And we do 46 Sam's and Price Clubs. Our demo lady in Tucson sold 140 four-packs in one day last week."

"A record," Barbara says.
Not one that surprises either of the Pages, however. Ever since its debut nineteen years ago, their green-chile sauce has been a marvel of the canned-goods industry. "Instantaneously successful," is how Bob remembers it.

"Unbelievable," Barbara agrees.
Neither Page was prepared for such a hit--or, for that matter, for the canning business at all. In 1974, having spent twenty years as an aerospace engineer at Martin Marietta, Bob bought Stokes Foods on the advice of a business broker. By industry standards, Stokes, which had been producing fewer than a million cans of chili con carne per year since the Twenties, was a "small, bitty operation," says Bob. "They did chili--what you call jailhouse chili, with meat and beans. They did tamales and they did white beans. Before, I was part of a small group doing a way-out space thing. Now I had to have contact with employees. Well, I decided I loved that part."

Barbara, who'd earned a college degree in zoology before her three children were born, had been a contented homemaker. Then she discovered her knack for product development, the creation of new recipes and the alteration of old ones. "We found some of the funny old labels from World War II," she says. "There was something called Chili of the Sea, a tuna chili, if you can believe. Luckily, we never had to taste it."

Also luckily, the Pages have similar culinary tastes. As high school sweethearts in Borger, Texas, they both learned to cook from Bob's mother, who used chiles from the family garden to make a smothering sauce no one could resist. So it was no great leap when the couple decided to make that green-chile sauce the first in a new Stokes line. (No one will reveal the official recipe, but pork, roasted New Mexico chiles, modified food starch and salt are the sauce's primary ingredients. And half its calories come from fat--no wonder it tastes good.) Within the first year of production, the green chile was the company's top-selling product. It still is today.

With profits on the rise, Barbara joined the company officially in 1979. Two years later the green sauce had generated enough green for the Pages to acquire Ellis Foods, a local competitor with a lower-priced line of chili con carne, tamales and beans. (A vintage Ellis can now in the Pages' possession boasts the slogan "Prepared in bright sunlit kitchens.") Although Ellis continues to make a "burrito sauce with green chile and pork," it's no threat to the Stokes version.

"It's simply lower-priced. Look at the other Ellis products," Barbara says, producing a notebook full of Ellis labels. "Look at this...corned beef hash, black-eyed peas, even cornmeal mush. I hear President Reagan was fond of Ellis cornmeal mush."

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