Davies Appliance: shutdown puts longtime family business to the test

Davies Appliance: shutdown puts longtime family business to the test

in Community/Featured/Headline

After the shelter-in-place bomb dropped on local businesses in March, Chris Chambers wondered whether his would be considered “essential” and could stay open. “I was very worried when I first heard,” the 34-year-old president of the 86-year-old family business called Davies Appliance recalls. “I didn’t understand what essential was for sure, and the more we were open, the more we realized that we are an essential business.”

Right off the bat, local hospitals ordered extra refrigerators. The fire department needed laundry appliances. “And the panic buyers and the people who just bought $500 worth of food from Costco—and the refrigerator died,” Chambers says. “I mean what are they going to do?” Since the beginning of the coronavirus shutdown, Davies Appliance has managed to stay open, albeit by appointment only, in an almost a speakeasy style. Overall sales are down 30 to 40 percent from last year.

The shock to the system is completely new to Chambers, but it has an ironic parallel in family history. His great-grandfather—the pugnacious scrapper who for decades ran “EZ” Davies Chevrolet—came through World War II as an essential business too. Al Davies had been delayed getting his new dealership building at 1101 El Camino Real (where Sequoia Station is today) completed, and when it finally opened in January 1942, war had just been declared after the attack on Pearl Harbor the month before.

Detroit automakers were marshalled into the all-consuming war effort and built everything from tanks to torpedoes. Al and his brother Tom had a heavy investment on the line, and it became difficult to obtain new cars. So Davies Chevrolet became a Firestone dealer, selling Firestone tires and sparkplugs and Firestone “phonoradios.” Firestone bikes and Firestone washing machines. And other brands of stoves and fishing gear, and table tennis sets, kitchen mixers, golf clubs and footballs.

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“About anything that they could get their hands on,” says Virginia Biddle, 85, the oldest of four daughters. She and her husband Joe, 86, own Davies Appliance and are delighted that their grandson picked up the torch and is carrying on a business that has been essential to the family’s identity.

And perhaps Redwood City’s as well. Davies Appliance likely is the oldest retailer in the city, but the company’s roots go all the way back to 1916, when Al Davies’ older brother, Ed, started an auto repair shop on the corner of Vera Avenue and El Camino. Six years later, the expert auto mechanic turned Davies Auto Co. over to brothers Al and Tom. They first sold Willys-Overland cars, but in 1932 became a Chervolet dealership.

Enter Frigidaire

In 1934, General Motors bought the Frigidaire company and asked some of the Chevy dealers to display refrigerators on their showroom floors, Virginia Biddle says. The company started making washers and dryers and eventually appliances began to crowd out the showroom cars. So Al Davies bought the building at 1580 El Camino, where Davies Appliance is today, and it became a separate business.

Over many years, Al Davies became the unofficial “king” of El Camino Real. He regularly spoke up at City Council meetings and turned his howitzer vocabulary on city staff. (He called one city planner “a donkey. I told him to his face.”) Impervious to other people’s opinions and endowed with a caustic wit, Al Davies ridiculed the downtown revamp of the 1970s with its old-fashioned streetlights. They brought “twilight hour to Broadway,” he told the City Council. “(They’re the) rest-in-peace ones sitting out there waiting to turn it into a beautiful corridor that you can’t see there unless it’s daytime.”

And that old maxim “the customer is always right?” Not to Al Davies. If a customer announced that he wasn’t going to pay a bill, Biddle says, his father-in-law would respond, “Well if you don’t, I’ll knock you out.” And Al Davies was fully prepared to take the billing dispute resolution “outside.”

He had been an entrepreneur all his life, starting with selling newspapers on the street corner in San Francisco at the age of eight. Work was all he had ever known and his business meant everything to him. “I almost went broke a couple of times,” he told a reporter in 1980. “But that just toughens you up.”

“He was down there (the dealership) every morning at 8 o’clock,” Virginia Biddle says. “And he was home for dinner promptly at 6 o’clock. Dinner had to be on the table because dad has to get back down to the garage as soon as he finished dinner, and he closed up at 9 o’clock.”

He was a man of strong convictions. A graduate of Sequoia High School, Al Davies had friends among the Japanese-Americans who had nursery businesses before World War II; he’d sold them cars. When they went to internment camps, he stored their cars for them. “And after the war, they all got their cars back,” Virginia Biddle says. Washed, polished and with a full tank of gas. “That was one thing they still had. They had lost practically everything else.” He was a member of the Exchange Club, whose constitution allowed only white males to join. When his Japanese-American friends were denied, Al Davies quit and joined the Kiwanis Club.

Sundays on the Bay

His single hobby was sailing a fast boat on San Francisco Bay, with his “harem crew” of daughters Virginia, Sandy, Joan and Gayle and his wife aboard. “Besides sailing, business was his everything,” Virginia says. “I mean he ate business, he thought business, he lived for his business.”

The appliance side of the Davies enterprise hadn’t been profitable so Al Davies asked his son-in-law to take it on. A San Jose State College graduate who had worked at Ampex Corp., Joe Biddle began to incorporate more high-end product lines, such as SubZero and Wolf, to expand market reach. “We brought it around in a couple of years to make it very successful and he was thrilled about that,” Joe says.

Davies Appliance today offers a range of product lines, from basic refrigerators and washers and dryers to the ultra-high end, including $50,000 ranges, professional-level pizza ovens, outdoor beer dispensers, coffee systems, wine coolers and barbecues. Davies Appliance was able to compete with chain stores like Sears and Best Buy on price by joining a group in the early 1970s to buy from manufacturers in quantity. The buying group started with three members, according to Joe, and now numbers about 2,300.

When Al Davies sold his former dealership in 1990, he still needed an office to go to every day, so the Biddles, who had bought the appliance business from him in 1970, built him one there. “The last time he came was three days before he died,” Virginia says. Her father had sinus cancer and passed away in 1997 at the age of 92.

A Survivor

The automobile company had survived the Great Depression and come through World War II. Together with the appliance business, the family concerns have weathered good times and bad, including Joe Biddle’s greatest challenge, a major recession in the 1980s. “It was hard to break even but we got through it all right,” he says. That period was “just a slow dip and we climbed back out of it.”

Chris Chambers grew up in the East Bay, went to college on a baseball scholarship and was playing semi-pro in Canada when Grandfather Joe called out of the blue in 2008 to ask if he’d like a job at the store. Chambers gave it a try, went back to baseball briefly but eventually returned to the family business. His wife, Kelsey, did fulltime bookkeeping until they began to have children. Chris’s brother, Jeff Chambers, handles accounts receivables and stepbrother Cody Lowenstein works in sales. Virginia’s sisters own the building.

Chris Chambers was surprised how much there was to learn—the brands, thousands of model numbers and sizes. “It takes a while to learn what will fit in each person’s home correctly,” he says, “cause if you do that wrong, there’s going to be major issues.” A business owner also has the challenge of doing what’s best for the store. A salesman might benefit, for example, by offering free delivery and installation. But that impacts a store’s bottom line.

The company sells a lot of Frigidaires—along with an array of luxury appliances with the latest in wi-fi connectivity. Stainless steel remains far and away the most popular finish, but consumers are also going for flush wood panel doors, as well as custom-color range hoods. During the shutdown, Davies Appliance has been upgrading its SubZero display area.

About five years ago, Chris Chambers implemented a no-commission policy; salesmen receive a salary plus a possible bonus. Tension is reduced in that environment, he believes, and customers get good service, whether or not “their salesman” is helping them. Davies Appliance has 13 employees; several have worked there for decades. “We’re small enough that we don’t have a ton of employees, and are able to take care of them and give them a good living.”

Davies Appliance has been surviving the absence of foot traffic in part thanks to builder and property management accounts, some as far away as Lake Tahoe, who are still placing orders. Chris Chambers looks forward to reopening but worries about how soon customers will feel comfortable being in stores. If Davies Appliance hadn’t been deemed essential, surviving would be a lot harder, he says, but Chambers recognized that a downturn was always possible and tried to prepare with a financial cushion.

“I have a lot of pride in being family-owned and us being here for four generations,” Chris Chambers says. “That’s very rare. And I know that if something were to happen, it would look bad on me and I just want to make sure to do my best to keep the family name going in this area.”