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."
"Well, I've seen some of those good old boys eating it in Oklahoma," Bob says doubtfully.
"Just look at this label," Barbara says, pointing to a picture, unchanged since the Thirties, that features three luscious cakes of mush topped by an iridescent yellow butter pat. "Who would eat it that way?"
But eat it they will, if Barbara has her way. Just last week she spent a morning in the Stokes test kitchens preparing cornmeal mush with various spaghetti sauces. "There really is no difference between mush and polenta," she explains. "It's really very nutritious." And before that, the employees--including the Pages' three sons, all of whom work in the family business--were treated to tastes of various brands of all-natural refried beans.
"We analyzed them for color, texture, viscosity," Bob recalls, "and I know I'm biased, but ours were the best."
By introducing health-oriented products, the Pages hope to gain an increased percentage of the all-natural market. Among the foods they're testing are a "98 percent fat-free" chicken chile with beans, as well as soups produced with organic vegetables from Colorado farmers. At a recent health-foods fair in Virginia, the response to these products was so encouraging that passing celebrity Linda Blair even autographed a Stokes chile can for the Pages, after which she joined them for dinner.
But the future was not always so bright. Back in 1987 the city condemned the original Stokes plant near Sixth Avenue and Santa Fe to make room for a parking lot. "A lot of the other businesses that had to move ended up going broke," Bob remembers. "It took us three months, and those were hard times, but we did it without laying anyone off."
Since then, in fact, the business--now located at 55th and High--has grown by nearly half, with 130 employees producing nearly 25 million cans of food each year. The Stokes and Ellis lines account for 70 percent of that volume; the rest comes from clients who hire the Pages to cook their recipes and stuff their cans. Ortega refried beans are produced here, as are some Healthy Choice soups, government-issue kidney beans and generic tamales.
"We're running tamales right now," says Bob. "It's not easy to run tamales. Only two or three other companies in the country do it anymore. Wanna take a look?"
Attired in white lab coat, hair net and hard hat, Bob strolls into a vast room filled with shining stainless-steel cans being fed into a conveyor-belt system that winds throughout the building. A huge vat gleams with pressure gauges and spigots. "That's the black-eyed-pea cleaner," Bob says. "And this is the blancher."
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Suddenly, a hole opens in the ceiling and two tons of cornmeal rain down into a bowl the size of a small trout pond. After water is added, two men wearing hip boots and holding spades begin making masa. A massive screw turns the mixture until a gate gives way and the mixture spills down a system of ducts. They lead one story below to a machine that slams the masa into a shell of something called vegetable parchment, then shoots out tamales at the speed of light. On the assembly line, thirteen extremely dexterous workers grab tamales four at a time and pack them speedily into cans.
"I love to walk around and just check on things. You see so much," Bob says. In the next ten minutes he visits two garage-size freezers, a box that is big enough to hold a grand piano but is filled with sliced carrots, and the Spice Room, in which forty-pound sacks of oregano, drums of paprika and kegs of dehydrated bell peppers emit an intoxicating scent. At regular intervals, employees stop by to chat. Their standard greeting, unhampered by corporate formality, is "Hey, buddy!" A few even hug him. Bob knows all 130 by name.
At the loading dock, Bob cranes his neck to look at a tower of green-chile sauce boxed and ready for shipping, perhaps to those sauce-starved folks in Washington. He asks after someone's mother and runs his hand lingeringly down the flank of a gorgeous forklift. He may be the president of Stokes-Ellis Foods, but does he ever get to drive it?
"No," he says, a bit wistfully. "I have to run the company.