Voices: Toops' Scoops

A Legacy of Listening: A final scoop on our late Diane Toops

A year ago, the food industry lost one of its fiercest advocates and fondest pundits — Diane Toops. Although her voice is now silent, her legacy perseveres through her writing and the memories of the many people she touched during her tenure in the industry.

By Kitty Kevin, Contributor

Toops, like Julia Child (a woman she greatly admired), came to her food industry career quite by happenstance and later in life. Unlike Julia, Di found herself a middle-aged widow with a teenaged son, in urgent need of employment. After a brief foray into the hotel industry, Di landed a job in the circulation department of Putman Publishing in Chicago.

Since she was a firm believer in fate, destiny or whatever name you want to ascribe to otherworldly forces, it was here that Fate stepped in and gave the food industry a new voice. Fate was embodied in Bob Messenger, who at the time was editor in chief of a new Putman Media magazine (now defunct) called Food Business.

"From the first time I met Diane, I sensed she could achieve much more than just languish in circulation," relates Messenger. "Plus I noticed how terrific she was on the telephone, just very friendly … eventually I went to John Cappelletti [president of Putman Publishing] and told him she had the talent to succeed on the editorial side." Cappelletti agreed, and Diane never looked back.

"She was so excited and proved to be a true asset on the [editorial] staff," says Messenger. "In any event, circulation's loss was the food industry's gain. She was respected and loved by the folks she encountered along the way. And she wrote with character and humor."

Aside: Fate knew what it was doing. Although Diane didn't have formal training in journalism at the time, she was a talented writer who had penned several Regency-era novels before beginning her publishing career.

Diane took to the food industry and writing with a voracious joy. She was all in, always trying to learn. Every trip to the grocery store was an opportunity to ferret out new products, talk to shoppers or discuss displays with store employees.

Diane collected business cards the same way other people collect sports trading cards. Her Rolodex is a gold mine of food industry connections. To hone her craft, she joined Chicago Women in Publishing — eventually serving as its president — along with Toastmasters (a public speaking group) and the Futurists Society. She even took publishing courses at Northwestern University.

"One of the first things I think Diane learned from the food industry was how to appreciate a chocolate truffle," says Joan Holleran Driggs, editorial director of Progressive Grocer. "And it seems to me she really wanted to spread the gospel of proper chocolate truffle eating: Appreciate its appearance and smell. Place it in your mouth; let it settle nicely against the roof of your mouth but don't mash it there. Let it melt, slowly. Enjoy the sensory experience of smelling the chocolate, feeling the chocolate and tasting the chocolate."

Trade shows were another resource to build her knowledge. Diane loved attending trade shows — from the Food Marketing Institute (where she indulged in annual photo ops with Elsie the Cow and the Keebler elves) to the Sweets & Snacks Expo (a prime source of chocolate to fuel her late-night writing), from the International Home + Housewares show (for new color trends and food gadgets) to packaging, equipment and ingredient expos.

While others might consider going to so many trade shows drudgery, Diane enjoyed them all, whether it was her first time attending or her 15th. Each one was an opportunity to look for the latest trends and new products or an engaging interview.

"Diane would catch up with old friends at the booths, run into people she knew in the aisles, and just generally have great conversations with everyone she met," recalls freelance food editor Elizabeth Brewster, Diane's first managing editor. "That's undoubtedly how she got all the great material for her Toops Scoops — being willing to spend lots of time with people to get to the 'good stuff.'"

Scoring an interview with a food company CEO was equally as exciting to Diane as interviewing the Green M&M. Both were challenging and spoke to her versatility as an interviewer. Innate curiosity and a genuine interest in others made Diane an exceptional conversationalist.

"I think that's what made her such a great interviewer," says Mary Ellen Kuhn, executive editor of Food Technology. "It was always mostly about the person she was talking to — never about herself very much."

While some of the topics Diane covered may not have been as exciting to her as others, she always understood the passion people had for their specialties, and it came through in her writing. "What made Diane so spectacular was her ability to connect with people; she really had a gift for helping people frame their own story," adds Holleran Driggs. "It's not that she put words in their mouths, but she was such a great listener and conversationalist that people didn't even realize how she helped them articulate their message. In part, it was her unflagging enthusiasm for the industry and people."

Diane had a complete open mindedness. She learned from absolutely everyone, recalls Barb Katz, president of HealthFocus. "She never seemed offended by criticism, but rather pleased that she could learn something." She was just happy that her writing was better, rather than annoyed that it had been changed.

A rebel of the 1960s, and admittedly a fatalist, Diane wrote happily from her perch above Chicago's Gold Coast fueled by coffee, chocolate and cigarettes. For the past decade she worked from her apartment, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. It freed her from an onerous daily commute to the suburbs, yet made it easy for her to work around the clock. She knew her lifestyle would one day catch up with her, but until then she would live life with gusto.

If there's an afterlife, you can be sure Diane has jumped in with both feet and with laughter and good humor. So this Halloween evening, take a moment and join me in a toast to an inspiring woman…you go, girl!

Kitty Kevin, a close friend of Diane, was associate editor on Food Processing 1993-1998, now a public relations director with Quiet Light Communications.

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