John Frederick Diehl was the founder of one of the most exclusive gourmet grocery establishments in the nation. Born in Missouri, Diehl began working in the Santa Barbara grocery business in 1881 at age 18, so when he and his two brothers, Edward and William, opened a modest store in 1891 in a small space at 723 State Street, he was already well-experienced. Edward and William began as clerks and later became managers of the growing concern under the watchful eye of their brother.
The brothers first made a name for themselves by offering the freshest of fruits and vegetables, locally harvested the very day they appeared on the produce shelves. Much of the produce came from Goleta area farms, owned by familiar names like Sexton, Stow, and Doty.
The Diehls realized the importance of advertising in attracting customers, and the store’s window displays always packed a great visual punch. Nor was print advertising neglected. Diehl copy writers went to great lengths in describing the succulent treats awaiting the public at the store, including “Bar le Duc currants where every single seed has been removed by hand without mutilating the berry.”
The store’s success necessitated a move in 1904 to bigger quarters, to 827 State Street. The new store boasted a bakery, soda fountain, tobacconist, delicatessen, and confectionary. The bakery turned out some two thousand loaves of bread every day.
The grocery became best known for its international gourmet items. From France came truffles; from India, Bombay duck; from China came ginger; and from England, canned crab. A reading of the store’s 150-page catalogue from 1928-29 reveals such items as half-pound tins of Ceylon tea for 55 cents, tins of pâté de fois gras for one dollar, the finest Havana cigars for nine dollars a box, and imported canned lobster for a dollar.
The catalogue also offered recipes and sandwich suggestions, some of which may seem strange to our palates today. How does a cheese and mint sandwich sound? Perhaps a sandwich of anchovy and banana is more to your liking?
When it came to service, Diehl’s stood second to none. The vast majority of its business came over the telephone, and the Diehl’s green and gold delivery trucks were a common sight in Santa Barbara and Montecito. In this, Diehl’s was not so unusual for delivery service was a big part of the grocery business circa 1910-1930. Diehl’s also adapted to the times. As the automobile became more popular, should a customer stop in for something and get a parking ticket while in the store, Diehl’s would simply add that to the tab.
Despite John Diehl’s death in 1921, the store continued to do well for the next few years, moving to its third and last location in a building the family owned at 823-825 State Street in 1923. This move almost quadrupled the size of the store, which one local newspaper called, “an Aladdin’s palace of epicurean delight.”
Perhaps this overextended the business. In 1926 the bank took over the concern, and the onset of the Depression in the early 1930s certainly did not help matters. Diehl’s liberal credit policy had allowed some customers to run up bills in the thousands of dollars. When these customers defaulted, it put the store into even deeper financial difficulties.
Diehl’s flagship store at 823-825 State Street closed in 1935, and after a number of location changes, the Diehl name disappeared from the lists of the city’s retail trade in 1942.