Hundreds of tiny blocks of chocolate cake and cream ramble down the conveyor at The Swiss Colony. A waterfall of chocolate splashes over them before a bakery worker drizzles more chocolate on top.
The catalog company’s bakery produces nearly 54 million petits fours per year, with most sold during the Christmas season. It claims to be the nation’s largest producer of the tiny French pastries, which are one of its best-selling items.
While Americans are spending less overall on presents, sales of food gifts grew almost 50 percent to nearly $16 billion from 2004 to 2006, according to Packaged Facts, a division of Rockville, Md.-based MarketResearch.com. About one-third of consumers shop for food gifts during the winter holidays, it said.
Researchers and shoppers say food has the same one-size-fits-all appeal as gift cards, but with the added allure of giving friends and family something they wouldn’t normally buy for themselves.
While shopping for family in other parts of the country, people may not know what clothes or electronics to get, but food “is a universal gift,” said Kenneth J. Sousa, who teaches e-marketing at Bryant University in Rhode Island.
Debbe Geiger, 43, of Cary, N.C., said she is giving a variety of food gifts this year after her nephew sent her Omaha Steaks’ bacon-wrapped filet mignon last year.
“I thought he pegged me well,” she said, explaining that she enjoyed the steaks but was too practical to buy them for herself.
Food gift companies can do as much as 75 percent of their business during the winter holidays.
Competition is fierce, said John Baumann, president of Swiss Colony.
“All you have to do is go on the Internet and look up ’cheese gift’ or ’sausage gift’ or ’food gift’ or ’food items’ and there are literally thousands of different shopping options are going to pop up,” he said.
Food gift companies also compete with other manufacturers with catalogs or an Internet presence.
“The average consumer does not necessarily believe they have to get a food gift,” Baumann said.
The most successful companies offer uncommon products that people are willing to pay both a premium price and the cost of shipping to get, said Domenick Celentano, who teaches entrepreneurial studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Most people wouldn’t ship basic foods such as bread, but they will pay extra to get a layered raspberry and chocolate cheesecake.
“When you get out of the major metropolitan areas, it’s difficult — if not impossible — to find some of the items like those you’d see at Swiss Colony,” Celentano said.
The company started by shipping sausage and cheese in the 1920s. But as specialty grocers made those items more common, the bulk of its food business shifted to hard-to-make candies and layered cakes.
One of its specialties is petits fours — miniature layered cakes first served by the French uppercrust during in the 1800s. In the U.S., they are usually only served at wedding receptions or other special occasions because of the time and cost of making them, said Gary Welling, who directs the International Baking and Pastry Institute at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.
“They’re not your everyday eating,” Welling said.
They are Erin Patterson’s favorite holiday treats. The Milwaukee lawyer’s father is a parochial school principal who often gets several boxes of Swiss Colony petits fours as Christmas gifts from parents.
When Patterson and her four siblings were young, her mother saved the boxes until Christmas Eve, when the children would gorge on pastries, egg nog and soda. Her family still indulges on the holidays, but now they pair petits fours with drinks and shrimp cocktail.
“I love the Swiss Colony,” said Patterson, 27.
Food gift companies bank on family tradition. Medford, Oregon-based Harry & David started shipping Comice pears, which it sells as the trademarked Royal Riviera pears, in the 1930s. They are still its top seller, executive vice president Bill Ihle said.
The company aims for “the customer saying, ’Gee, I remember this from mom and dad’s house. I remember this from grandmom’s house,”’ Ihle said.
Caryn Mauser, 45, of Kenosha, began sending her family Harry & David gift baskets that include the pears two years ago after her mother sent her a gift from the company.
“For that particular gift, I knew they would all like it,” she said. “I had no doubt.”
Faced with shopping for her sister, brother-in-law and niece this year, she said she’ll probably send them another basket.
“That’s part of it, too,” she said. “I don’t have to decide what to get each of them. They all enjoy that.”
Gail Glover, 44, of Port Crane, N.Y., sends her family in South Africa food baskets from Woolworths, a retailer based in Cape Town. She and her 13-year-old son spend several weeks picking out items from the online catalog.
“It’s giving him some ’Grandparent’ time, even though we are miles away,” she wrote in an e-mail. It also “beats the heck out of mailing packages. It works out to be a lot cheaper and so much more convenient!”