︎︎︎episode 65

The Holiday Trend-tacular Part 2: Holiday Gift Baskets and Catalogs Galore

Dec 16th, 2022

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“Pasteurized cheese food, sundried tomatoes, and one packet of cocoa mix:”

I had a coworker at one of my jobs, a lovely person, but she had this habit of posting photos on Instagram of racks of clothing and swatches of fabrics (carefully arranged as to look aesthetically pleasing but also as if they were just casually tossed there in the midst of some important fashion action…captioned with a single, lonely hashtag: #buyerslife

This sorta turned into a joke amongst our team, as we began to try to find the grossest things we could find to post with the caption #buyerslife: a bottle of Pepto-Bismol purchased for $15 at the airport, a mountain of discarded Starbucks cups piled on the floor at MAGIC, that kind of thing.  I still think about it and laugh to myself, especially if I’m on a buying trip and everything is gross (it usually is).

Nothing screams #buyerslife, in all of its excess, waste, and frequent disappointment than the endless parade of Wine Country Gift Baskets we would receive every holiday from our vendors.  In more recent years, it’s shifted to more trendy things that are both expensive and disappointing, like layer cakes from Milk Bar, towers of mini cupcakes,  or chocolate dipped strawberries. All of these things were expensive (2 dozen chocolate dipped strawberries will run you $80 plus shipping, a cake from Milk Bar will be $60-140 (plus shipping).  And by the time you’ve opened your tenth cake or gift basket, the thrill is gone.  Yet this tradition of corporate gifting remains alive. Forbes estimates the size of this industry that sends gift baskets, cakes, cases of wine, cheeses, foiled wrapped fruit, and so much more as $242 billion! And it grew during the pandemic.

Gift baskets, cakes, and all that fruit are part of the longtime tradition of vendors giving their buyers gifts at the holidays, as A token of thanks for the business and hopefully a reminder to buy from them again.  Most companies forbid buyers from accepting expensive gifts or money, so gift baskets it is. The first box of Godiva chocolates feels luxurious, but two weeks later, everyone in your family is receiving one as a regift.  And btw, I prefer See’s chocolates!

As we started talking about this episode, I wondered “when did the gift basket become a big ass industry?” And like a lot of things that we now consider kinda passe or commodified to the point of losing its appeal…was there a moment when gift baskets were THE hot gift?  Assuming that most social and fashion trends follow the skinny jeans trajectory of cutting edge→ super stylish and on trend→a little less popular but still common→and then cheugy…when did gift baskets feel like a fresh alternative to boot cut?

Well, it turns out that the Christmas basket–known in the UK and Europe as a “Christmas hamper”--goes a lot further back than I imagined. While giving food as a gift is a great idea, and certainly a timeless idea embraced by many cultures around the world, I am focusing on the Christmas gift basket specifically because they are definitely the “forefathers” of those Wine Country Gift Baskets we received by the UPS truckload at a lot of my jobs.

  • The idea of filling a basket with a bunch of luxurious food gifts like wine, cheese, cakes, puddings, and pies was imported from France into the UK around the 11th century.  In 1066, William the Conqueror introduced the concept to England. Even though he was also known as “William the Bastard,” his hampers were filled with food and clothing for needy families.  And these hampers were always made of wicker, making them lightweight and easy to transport. Furthermore, it was intended to be reused by the recipient for transporting laundry, produce, etc. The “basket-ness” of gift baskets is a key component of its history. Ironically we received a wicker canoe that was about 6 feet long at one of my jobs, full of three times as many cheese breadsticks and chocolate covered shortbread.
  • At the same time, wealthy aristocrats would use hampers for picnics of delicacies and seasonal delights, which probably helped contribute to the more modern idea of a “gourmet” gift basket.
  • By the 17th century, many Europeans began to use stagecoaches and other wagons to get around, often taking a basket of special foods and drinks to make the trip a little bit more bearable.
  • When rail travel became more commonplace, these hampers became more elaborate, including fresh items like dairy, nice-to-haves like coffee, tea, jam, and sweets. And the increased speed of rail travel (versus say, horse or wagon) meant that more perishable items could be sent to others, which began the idea of giving “special” foods as gifts.
  • By the Victorian era, the Christmas hamper became “the” gift to give your maids and other servants.  These hampers contained food and drinks that the servants couldn’t normally afford. It was imperative that these baskets feel luxurious.
  • The United States followed suit with this trend, calling their version “gift baskets.” The intention was the same: gifting the recipient with special seasonal items and gourmet foods.
  • In World War I, family members would send similar special gift boxes/parcels to soldiers, often containing homemade food items made by family members. The Red Cross also sent special food gift boxes to soldiers. World War II would see the same practice, with simple luxuries like clean socks and new razor blades added.
  • Up until this point, the majority of the items in a gift basket/hamper would be made at home or purchased locally, whether it was baked goods, cheeses, wines, or liqueurs.
  • But in the 1920s, gift baskets began to turn into an industry, as more and more people were living in cities and working outside the home.  It was easier to buy your gift baskets pre-made than take the time to track down special produce and make all of those candies and cakes!

In fact, It was in the 1920s that we start to see regional food gifts becoming a thing. For example, this was when cheese lover Ray Kubly began a small cheese shipping business that would become a huge army of catalogs:  Swiss Colony.

Swiss Colony, aka “America’s number-one food gifts catalog” (that’s according to the Swiss Colony website).  To me as a child, Swiss Colony was the most sophisticated catalog, for the true gourmands, for people who probably owned yachts and spent the holidays skiing in the Alps..it was for people who had been to Europe! Because wasn’t Swiss Colony…Swiss? And therefore, european? And therefore…fancy?!

  • Well, it turns out that Swiss Colony began in 1926 in neither Geneva nor Zurich nor even a bucolic Alpen village…but instead, in  Monroe, Wisconsin in the USA.  Apparently Monroe had both a strong concentration of Swiss immigrants and a history of making a lot of cheese. Ray Kubly was a senior at the University of Wisconsin that year.  And one of his school projects was considering the pros and cons of creating a business selling Wisconsin cheese via mail order.  Now, it was no coincidence that Ray had cheese on his mind because (according to the Swiss Colony website), Ray’s hometown was “the unofficial cheese capital of the biggest cheese-producing state in the nation.” Cheese was pretty much in his blood (which is a gross mental picture, for sure). 

  • Well, after he graduated, Ray just couldn’t stop thinking about this cheese mail order business. So he decided to go for it. And per Swiss Colony legend:
  • “He mailed out handbills, which he himself designed and stamped, that advertised cuts of Wisconsin-made bulk cheeses for the upcoming holidays. As orders came in, he cut the huge wheels of cheese into pieces by hand, then wrapped and shipped them. In his first year of business, he sold all 50 packages of cheese that he had prepared.”

  • By 1941 (15 years later), Swiss Colony had 100 seasonal employees (because the focus was on holiday food gifting).  And customers included Eleanor Roosevelt, Jimmy Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and many other celebrities who loved giving cheese as a gift. Just a few years later, the business had grown so much,  that the railroad had to send an extra boxcar to Monroe every week in December just to transport all of those holiday cheese orders! Over time, Swiss Colony added sausage, bakery products, and candies to its product offering.  These included fruit cake, torte, and petit fours.  According to their website, “The Swiss Colony has the largest hand-decorating bakery in America.”
  • But here’s the thing: from 1926 to 1961, as Swiss Colony grew and grew, Ray Kubly was just doing it as a side hustle! In fact, this entire time, he held on to his day job at Borden (a dairy company) where he worked his way up to Vice President!

  • Over the years, Swiss Colony opened stores, closed stores, acquired more catalogs, and now manufactures clothing, home goods, and all kinds of other gifts through its family of catalogs. It also owns its own fleet of charter jets in the midwest!  Swiss Colony (and its other brands) offer just about everything on a payment plan (not unlike AfterPay), which makes it more accessible to households with lower/middle incomes.   It doesn’t seem to be a big part of corporate gifting.

But Swiss Colony wasn’t the only gourmet food catalog to emerge in the 1920s and 30s.  Harry & David–famous for their foil wrapped pears–also began.

  • Samuel Rosenberg owned a luxury hotel in Seattle. But in 1910, he  purchased comice pear orchards in Southern Oregon. It might seem like a random choice, but Rosenberg had sampled the pears at the previous year's Alaska–Yukon–Pacific Exposition.  These orchards dated back to the 1800s and the pears were particularly delightful.
  • In 1914, his sons Harry and David Rosenberg took over the operations of the orchard. They renamed the pears “Royal Riviera” and began selling them to European customers as a luxury item.  But the Great Depression forced them to pivot to selling to US customers, and by 1934, they were selling them via mail order, taking out ads in Fortune, National Geographic, and the New York Times.  Soon they began offering “box of the month” subscriptions. These were definitely a luxury offering for the well-heeled customer. Soon they introduced gift baskets and their signature “Tower of Treats” which included nuts, chocolates, and of course, pears. Over time, they acquired a baking company and a citrus company, rounding out their offering. 
  • In the 80s, Harry and David was purchased by Nabisco and then were sold a few more times over the years, ultimately ending up in the hands of 1-800-Flowers in 2012.
  • Harry & David remains a bit more luxurious (I mean, the pears are wrapped in gold foil)!
  • Much like Swiss Colony (and all of these gift basket companies) the vast majority of sales happen during the holiday season.

By the middle of the 20th century, premade gift baskets were starting to make their way into middle class life as they became a part of both business gifting and were just generally considered a great gift for someone you didn’t know super well, but wanted to impress.

Another company that grew out of that era was Hickory Farms, which I remember would pop up at the mall when I was a kid.  Richard Ransom began selling handcrafted cheeses at local farmers markets in 1951. It may be a coincidence, but in 1959 he added summer sausage to the mix AND opened his first retail store.  By 1981, the brand had more than 1000 stores and seasonal kiosks in the U.S. So Harry & David focused on fruit. Swiss Colony was all about cheese and baked goods. And Hickory Farms really focused on meats and cheeses  (which did not need to be refrigerated), with some mustard thrown in as a topping.  Hickory Farms was definitely focusing on the “middle america” mall customer, although it moved all of its operations online in this century

Now, the company that has seemed to corner the market when it comes to corporate gifting of gift baskets is Wine Country Gift Baskets. And there just isn’t a lot of info out there about them.   But they do offer a massive assortment of gift baskets ranging from a mug with packets of cocoa called “Snowman Surprise” for $19.95 to an “Ultimate California Wine Sleigh” for $800.

While many of the largest gift basket companies grew by purchasing bakeries, vineyards, dairies, etc, Wine Country and many of the other gift basket companies seem to be buying a lot of private label foods.  I wondered…where are they getting these items?  There was something about them (as a person who has picked through a lot of these baskets looking for a gluten free item) that reminded me of the food that you can buy at TJ Maxx. Through some sleuthing (basically reading some articles about TJ Maxx, tracking down the manufacturers quoted in those articles, then visiting their websites)...it does seem as if these companies are also “white labeling” these gift basket foods.  Ever notice that they are brands that seem real but you’ve never seen elsewhere?
  • Hamilton House
  • Ministry of Snacks
  • Sonoma Jacks
  • Queen’s Delight
  • Lots of things that sound Italian or French

Much like the way skinny jeans turned into jeggings that stained your legs and lost their shape, the gift basket has lost its special meaning. No longer a gift of simple luxuries like delicious foods and drinks, it’s become a massive industry of overpriced crackers, cocoa mix, and unrefrigerated dairy.

I will say that food is still kinda the best gift! But rather than shopping from these big brands, you could assemble something yourself (and tailor it to what the recipient likes). I can say from first hand experience that a lot of these gift baskets go to waste, and there’s always this moment in late January, where you’re sorting through the remnants (somehow next to the printer), finding just some hard candies and “Valley Baking” crispbreads, wondering if you should just eat those or get a $10 salad downstairs.

If premade is your preference, check out your favorite grocery store or look on Etsy. Or just do some googling. So many smaller companies have popped up that create rad baskets of nice food and condiments that people want…bringing back that idea of of specialness and luxury of the “Christmas hamper.”