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An edible arrangement against a jazzy purple background
 ”I am a gift!” screams an Edible Arrangement.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

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Consider the Edible Arrangement

Its secondary job is to delight. Its primary job is to exist.

Right now, on the website for Edible Arrangements, you can purchase a bouquet of cut fruit featuring cartoon-style flowers cut from pineapple with bulbous cantaloupe centers, with leafy moons of honeydew and fat strawberry roses, dotted with sprigs of shiny red grapes.

You can buy many arrangements like this one, in various configurations, depending on your budget and edible needs. Sometimes, the pineapple is shaped like a star and not a daisy. Sometimes, there are orange wedges. Some arrangements have fruits dipped in chocolate. The “Peace & Doves Bouquet” depends upon a small flock of pineapple birds in white chocolate coats.

They cost between $24.99, for a petite-sized FruitFlowers Bouquet, and go up to $1,999, for an Incredible Edibles Chocolate Spectacular, which is less an “arrangement” than an edible shrub.

In the two decades since the company was founded, it has become an icon and a punchline. It is the ultimate gift for gift’s sake, a category of objects that exists exclusively to be presented to someone else. It is not that nobody wants an Edible Arrangement; it is just that wanting (or not wanting) an Edible Arrangement — a present that exists at the intersection of frivolity and groceries — has very little to do with getting one.

There are, of course, no rules preventing you from buying yourself a chocolate-covered pineapple bouquet, but there are customs. An Edible Arrangement is like a MacArthur Fellowship; you cannot nominate yourself.

Tariq Farid opened the first Edible Arrangements store in 1999 in East Haven, Connecticut. He had been working in the floral industry, so he knew about flowers, and he was also aware that there were people making bouquets out of fruit, and so he started selling those, too, in a corner of his flower shop. He didn’t invent the concept, he tells me. It’s just that now, if you picture a fruit bouquet, it’s probably one of his.

“I’ve always done things according to what customers think,” he says, which is good, because customers loved his arrangements that were edible; as of early 2018, annual revenue topped $500 million.

The banks he was trying to get loans from did not. In Connecticut magazine, he described these initial meetings: “I looked like I was on some type of drug like speed or something. I’m going, ‘THIS IS GONNA BE BIG,’ and they’re like, ‘It’s fruit, in a basket.’”

This, in fact, was the whole point. It is fruit. It is in a basket (or a vase). But people did not understand. He would show them the brochure in his pocket — as the company was starting, he always carried a brochure in his pocket — and explain, and they would tell him how cool it was, and then confess that they’d thought it had something to do with edible underwear.

This confusion did not last long. According to Farid, “every customer that came in loved it and wanted to know how they could order more.” The first major fruit-flower holiday they were open, Easter 1999, they had “about 28 orders. It was amazing, the type of response we had.” And it would be easier to dismiss this as entrepreneurial puffery if the brand did not — despite various troubles — currently have 1,200 stores in 11 countries worldwide.

People think Edible Arrangements are very expensive, Farid says, but that’s wrong. “Our most popular arrangement is $25. We wanted to make it an everyday option, and that’s what we did.”

Thanks to an army of specialized fruit-cutting machinery — the company holds a staggering number of patents for devices related to the slicing of melons — you can impulsively swing by an Edible storefront and have one arranged on the spot, in “7 or 8 minutes.” It can be a planned gift, or an impulse gift, or a gift you give when you can’t think of a different gift, or for when you forgot you needed one.

If you are presented with an Edible Arrangement, Farid really wants you to say “wow.” To feel “wow.” To taste “wow.” The company is in the “wow” business: Up until about two years ago, Farid says, the mission statement was “to WOW you.” (It has since changed to the more community-minded “to fill the world with goodness,” although “wow” remains a top priority.)

“I mean, we’re a gifting company. That’s why you send a gift. You give a gift to wow someone, to make their day,” Farid explains. It is not just a gift, but a symbol of a gift. “I am a gift!” announces an Edible Arrangement. Its primary job is to exist.

The Edible Arrangement’s beautiful giftiness is also what makes it a joke. There is an Onion headline: “Continued Existence of Edible Arrangements Disproves Central Tenets of Capitalism.” “According to experts,” the article reads, the company has “defied all modern economic models, expanding continuously for the past decade despite its complete lack of any discernible consumer appeal.”

But to economist Joel Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics, a credo against the inefficiency of holiday gift-giving, gifts are rarely logical propositions. A good gift is something you wouldn’t buy for yourself, I propose, which is an unoriginal insight but also what I think.

From an economic perspective, though, it’s the opposite. “What’s efficient is to give somebody something they would have purchased for themselves, or cash,” Waldfogel says. “But that’s not really gift-like.”

And in most situations that require a gift, “cash is not acceptable,” except in very specific circumstances: Your grandmother might give you cash, but you are probably not writing a birthday check to your boss. But an Edible Arrangement is perfect for when cash would be both ideal and colossally inappropriate.

And so it makes sense that some number of arrangements are corporate gifts, bestowed upon one company by another, because it’s Christmas and they appreciate your business. In November and December, peak corporate gifting season, this constitutes about 11 percent of the business.

“It’s a great item to send to an office where everybody can enjoy it,” Farid points out, for the same reason a more classical fruit basket is a great gift to send to an office: “If you send chocolate or candy, maybe some people will say, ‘I can’t eat sugar.’ If you send fruit, everybody will dig into it.” What he does not say is that an Edible Arrangement is blissfully impersonal; it is the color ecru in gift form.

The primary target customer, however, has always been not a corporation but “a mom,” Farid says. “Or that 25- to 40-year-old female demographic — skewed female, because a lot of times the decisions get made by the lady of the house, except for Valentine’s Day and possibly Mother’s Day.” And even then, sometimes it is the 25- to 40-year-old woman demographic telling her husband, “Hey, don’t forget Mom, it’s her birthday, let’s get her something,” he says.

Mother’s Day is the biggest Edible occasion — there are late presents, and early ones — but the single busiest Edible day is Valentine’s Day, because “it’s all about love.” It is similar to other gifts given for these holidays — a bouquet of actual flowers, for example — but, Farid notes, the value proposition is higher because cut fruit is beautiful but also food. In the great schism between “things” and “experiences,” a fruit bouquet is both: You gaze at it, but then you eat it.

But how intimate can a present between lovers be if it is equally appropriate as a gift between corporate law firms? As one former Edible Arrangements employee recalled to Munchies, they are also big with men trying to hit on women they mostly do not know.

“They’d write notes like, ‘Saw you at the club the other day, you told me where you worked...’” and then it would be up to him to wander through a Macy’s with a vase of floral melon balls looking for a woman based on vague physical characteristics and no last name. Except that the men aren’t wrong. “Everyone,” he concluded, “is so thrilled to get these weird topiaries of fruit.”

And yet it is easy to be dismissive of Edible Arrangements. Unlike fruit-gifting competitor Harry and David, purveyor of gold-wrapped pears, or the perfect $125 melons sold at Sembikiya, Tokyo’s most famous luxury fruit market, Edible Arrangements has always identified as working-class.

“When we started, we were mostly in blue-collar towns,” says Farid. “And our stores did the best in those towns.” He attributes this to the healthy selection of lower-priced options, and a belief that “blue-collar people tended to celebrate a lot more.”

His father, after bringing the family over from Pakistan, worked as a machinist, so Farid understands. “We know we have to take care of those customers who are celebrating but have limited resources.”

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In a world full of bagels, you're a sprinkle donut.

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Is it so wrong to give a gift that exists to be given? Is it a bug that you need know nothing about your recipient to present them with an Edible Arrangement, or is it — perhaps — a feature?

It is rarely a misstep. “The worst thing that can happen is you’ll moderately enjoy it and then it’s gone,” Waldfogel tells me. “It’s not some kind of permanent burden, like the ugly picture that hangs on the wall that you’re expected to have on the wall every time the giver comes visiting.”

Waldfogel has no public stance on Edible Arrangements, but he will say that there is “something special about it. ... I suspect for most people, it’s not a usual thing to consume.” And in that way, yes, “it has some of the criteria that you might associate with a ‘perfect gift.’”

But the problem with gifts is that they are occasional; even in the age of extreme self-care, people are mostly not buying chocolate-dipped fruit trees for themselves. “Where we’re going towards now is we have a lot of treats,” Farid says: chocolate-dipped fruit chunks, fruit smoothies, “donuts,” which are actually chocolate-covered Granny Smith apple rounds. “Our ideal customer is the person who treats themselves. The ‘gifted giver,’ we call them.” The company, he says, has evolved “from gifting into a treat business.”

Does this mean that we aren’t giving so much anymore, I ask? Not at all, Farid assures me. We’re probably giving even more now, if anything. “You can send a little emoji and make someone’s day.” Sometimes, his kids send him a heart; he loves that. It’s a gift in itself.

“What people give has changed,” he continues. “People want to be a lot more sensible.” But the basic impulse to give? No, that hasn’t changed. It’s just that there’s a new recipient now. It is us, gifting ourselves the gift of being gifted.

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