These guys are Sweethearts

Ask the average Sonoman to list the one place in town where they are most likely to run into people they know, and the odds are high they’ll say either the Plaza or Sonoma Market.

Ask anyone in Glen Ellen where they are most likely to encounter their friends and they will instantly answer either the Post Office or Shone’s, otherwise known as Glen Ellen Village Market.

To say that Don Shone and Dale Downing have created a Valley institution is like saying that Will Bucklin makes a nice, organic, dry-farmed zinfandel field blend. (It’s an understatement of profound proportions, but worth noting if you’re searching for a bottle of Bucklin’s outrageously good zin, because you can find it at either market).

The grocery store partners, who will be anointed Saturday night 2014 Sweethearts of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Sonoma Valley, have been in business now for 50 years, most of that time together, and the spaces they’ve created are as much ours as theirs – which is to say that citizens of the Valley practically inhabit both stores.

In fact, some Glen Ellen residents will tell you that they love their village, but if Shone’s wasn’t there they wouldn’t be either.

And while the city of Sonoma has several grocery store options, Sonoma Market seems to occupy a different dimension in the lives of its customers – they don’t just shop there, somehow they become members of an extended family.

Some of that, no doubt, has to do with values. This week, the drugstore giant CVS announced it would stop selling tobacco products by October, taking a $2 billion hit in sales. Well and good. But Dale and Don did the same thing almost 20 years ago. Then, said Don, “Dale heard how snuff was killing kids, so we threw it out too. We lost a lot of money, but it was a good move for us.”

But ending access wasn’t the end of the story. “We make bets with our employees,” Don explains. “If they want to try to stop smoking, we’ll pay them $300 if they can stop for six months. If they screw up, they have to do 15 hours of volunteer work.”

Deals like that suggest a somewhat unorthodox work environment.

One employee, Don remembers, “smoked like a chimney. I told him $200, he said nah, that’s not enough. I finally got him up to $600 and he did it. We’ve had great success, probably 20 or 30 people over the years.”

Those years began in 1963 when Don opened the Glen Ellen market everyone just called Shone’s in the stone building now housing a tasting room across from where the old and infamous Rustic Inn once stood. The Rustic, a saloon of legend frequented by Jack London in his day, and later by an eclectic melange of humanity ranging from writers (including, for about a year, Hunter S. Thompson) to bikers, awestruck tourists and employees from the Sonoma Developmental Center, eventually burned more or less to the ground after catching fire once too many times.

That was in 1974 when Don and Dale were both volunteer firefighters, and they were actually present when the flames erupted. “The old saddle sign, which was never lit, finally turned on, and the jukebox, which didn’t work, came on, and then the place basically burned up.”

The loss was felt throughout the Valley and for years the land stood vacant until Dale and Don, who had already joined forces to open Sonoma Market in 1985, took another leap of faith and built the present Glen Ellen Village Market over the ashes of the Rustic Inn. It was a multi-million-dollar risk, but wasn’t their first and may not be their last. “Don and I aren’t scared to try things,” notes Dale with a wry smile, although when they prepared to take over the old Valley Mart, predecessor to Sonoma Market, they got cold feet.

“We had second thoughts a week or so before we took over,” Dale explains, “and we tried to back out. So they threatened to sue us.”

At the beginning of the arc of this enchanting success story, Don and Dale had, they recall, “about five employees,” including themselves and their wives. Now they’re up to 185, some with decades of employment there, including a butcher who started at 14 and is now 42.

“We have great, great people working for us,” says Don. “They’re the backbone of our success.”

Included in that circle of praise is store manager Al Minero, a managerial gem they plucked from Petaluma, somewhat like discovering a 10-carat diamond lying on the sidewalk. Don calls Minero, whose expertise and extroverted warmth have brightened every corner of the Sonoma store, “probably the best thing we’ve ever done.” Adds Dale, “He’s fabulous, just a real sharp, sharp guy.”

Part of the Shone-Downing success formula is the quality of the produce they buy – much of it organic and local – and the fact their seafood and meat markets rival those of any competitor. They also have perhaps the best selection of local wines in the Valley. Says Don, “We try to put in everybody locally. We carry so many of the little guys because they help us and we help them.”

But Dale and Don weren’t selected as Sweethearts of the year because of their wine selection or the size of their Dungeness crabs. They were chosen because they have a very matter-of-fact policy of giving back to the community that supports them.

Dale uses the example of the late Bob Nobles who owned the local Chevrolet agency and started the tradition of giving away a car each year to a graduating senior at Sonoma Valley High School. “I bet I bought 20 cars from Bob Noble,” says Dale. “And I never even asked the price. I bought from him because he was committed to the community.”

Don and Dale pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the Sonoma Valley each year, donating food to every imaginable cause – from Easter egg hunts to fundraising barbecues. They paid for the scoreboard at Arnold Field and provide the hotdogs for the snack stand. The contribute constantly to local volunteer fire departments, distribute bag lunches for auction events, and contribute up to 5 percent of sales to customer’s favorite nonprofit causes.

And, as Dale observes, “it all starts with the Boys & Girls Club,” where after-school programs engage, inform and entertain hundreds of Valley children, including Dale’s 11-year-old daughter.

“It’s a big honor,” Dale says of being a Sweetheart. “There will be 300-plus people there, every one will be a sweetheart, everyone in that room will be a winner because of the Boys & Girls Club.”