| Family First Feature |

Appreciation in a Basket

Meet the folks in the big leagues, those making hundreds or thousands of packages. They share what goes into commercial gift baskets

 

 

You know those ads for those gorgeous mishloach manos packages you see everywhere in Adar? The ones that make you wish you had friends who loved you that much? Ever wonder who’s buying those packages? Who’s getting them? And who are the people who make them?

Well, your neighbors probably aren’t going to send you a grandfather clock filled with Belgian chocolate. (Did all that flour you lent make you hopeful?) Those super-fancy arrangements are sent by organizations to thank doctors for life-saving services or politicians for supporting an important bit of legislation, by organizations strengthening relationships with their donors, and by businesses showing appreciation for clients and employees.

That’s not to say people never send commercial gift baskets to friends and family. (There is hope for those Belgian chocolates!) “A gift is a sentiment,” says Eli Oelbaum of Broadway Basketeers. He would know. Broadway Basketeers ships thousands of gift baskets year-round, and those baskets express everything from appreciation for an employee to sympathy for a loss, or just plain old love for a family member.

“People want to show appreciation to their clients and employees,” agrees Ruchie Markowitz of Glitz Gifts, a gift and home decor store in Boro Park. “They like to give at this time of year, when people are focused on mishloach manos. They don’t need to spend too much time deciding what to create — we have a wide variety of ready gift packages to select from, which makes it as simple as it gets.”

While there’s nothing like the personal touch, a ready-made gift basket is sometimes your best option for pampering your parents in Punxatawney or your best friend in Brooklyn — when you live in Berlin.

Or, say, your young’uns in Yerushalayim. Esty Guttman of Greenberry says the client base for her Jerusalem-based gourmet breakfast packages is almost entirely retail — and 95 percent of the orders come from abroad. That’s consistent year-round, but her order volume and production increase dramatically for Purim.

“It’s a virtual hug,” she says. “Purim’s in the last stretch before Pesach, when people really need that touch from home.”

Purim since Chanukah

What does that transition to the Purim season look like?  It sure ain’t easy.

“From a day after Chanukah, we’re already deep into Purim,” says Esty. To accommodate the extra volume, Greenberry rents a huge commercial kitchen. She starts training in new staff, including kitchen workers and secretaries to process orders.

The only catch? Greenberry prepares almost none of their food in advance. “Salads, ice coffee, yogurts — it has to be fresh,” Esty emphasizes. “We have two months to prepare, but two days to get everything done!”

That’s why, though Greenberry produces thousands of packages in those 48 hours, sometimes even the best long-term customers are turned away.

For Broadway Basketeers, the challenge isn’t volume — they’re capable of producing thousands of packages a day in their Lakewood-area factory, with a full-scale production team making gift baskets year-round. Need 250 of that beautiful candy tower? No problem. If they’re not on the shelf today, they will be tomorrow.

The longest part of the process? “Design takes a long time,” says Mr. Oelbaum. “Most of the products we sell are exclusively Broadway Basketeers designs. The paper, the box — all our containers are made exclusively for us.” That beautiful, elegant-but-sturdy basket was designed six months ago so it could be produced in time for Purim and went back and forth three times to the Far East until it was perfect.

Then there’s collecting the products, deciding which to use, tweaking and re-tweaking the design — a process that can take up to four weeks — and only once the package is finalized and photographed will it be produced, shrink-wrapped, and boxed so it’s ready to ship.

Just picture the way you stand in the aisle at the grocery store, comparing shades of taffy wrappers and finding the perfect-sized cappuccino. Then multiply it by a bajillion. “The Purim styles,” Oelbaum notes, “have a little more design, a little more flair.”

Unlike the others, Glitz Gifts is a brick-and-mortar retail store. To produce the thousands of gift packages she needs, Mrs. Markowitz rents a temporary location for assembly. “It’s a fully separate production from the store,” she notes, and involves renting computers and installing phone systems for processing orders, along with hiring ten extra workers.

And this year, Glitz is opening a second storefront as well. It’s double the size of their regular store, so samples of every package can be displayed and customers can choose from what’s in front of them. They’ve also hired a mashgiach to oversee the handling of wine and any food that needs repackaging.

The Gift Trail

Oh, and we’re not done. You’d think that creating delicious, eye-popping packages would be enough, but take a moment to consider the logistics of getting those packages to their recipients. On time. In perfect shape.

I haven’t figured out how to do that with the few dozen mishloach manos I make every year, much less thousands of intricate assemblies being delivered worldwide.

Greenberry delivers their packages on Taanis Esther, before the traffic crush of Purim in Yerushalayim. “It’s amazing — we have the whole day to do deliveries,” enthuses Mrs. Guttman. (She’s delightfully enthusiastic about the entire Greenberry enterprise — it’s clearly a source of joy to her, and the way she describes her work is almost spiritual. Pretty impressive for yogurt and bagels!) “The timing is perfect. Sometimes, on Purim, people don’t have time to process who a package is from. But these come earlier.”

Greenberry hires drivers for door-to-door deliveries — “We have an amazing system in place after years of work” — and on Taanis Esther people are usually home to receive their gifts. “We don’t like to leave these packages by the door, and this way it gets noticed, the note gets read, and the food gets enjoyed. Everything is packaged beautifully and separately, and it stays fresh for days because it’s made so last minute.”

And no one’s complaining about breaking their fast on the best muffins in Israel.

All that efficiency is the product of hard-won experience. “The first year we went so big for Purim,” Mrs. Guttman remembers, “we didn’t realize that Purim time is extra crazy and the drivers are extra busy, or the extra time it takes to load hundreds of boxes in the trucks, or how bad the traffic would be. We were looking at hundreds and hundreds of breakfasts ready with no way to get it all out to the customers. In the end we paid top dollar for extra delivery, but we didn’t care as long as everyone got their packages.”

Glitz designs their packages to be as compact as possible without compromising on gorgeousness. (Mrs. Markowitz’s favorite for this year features leaf-shaped candy dishes on a branch. She loves the design — beautiful bark prints and autumn toned flowers — and is just as excited that the package is flat and compact, and the dishes are metal, which makes them sturdier for shipping.) When I ask if there’s a packaging material she never wants to see again, she says there’s enough variety that she doesn’t get sick of anything — aside from the screech of scotch tape. With at least half a dozen people wrapping packages all day, every day, the sound gets grating fast!

At Broadway Basketeers, Mr. Oelbaum is clearly passionate about shipping and logistics. “Because we ship year-round, we know the mechanics of FedEx and UPS… shipping is a science.” It was actually a willingness to ship Purim baskets that gave Broadway Basketeers its start nearly 30 years ago. They were one of the first companies to offer the service for mishloach manos.

“We started off with a Purim season, and customers requested that we help them with the corporate season as well, because they were uncomfortable sending nonkosher food to their associates.”

So, packages delivered, job done, right?

Nope.

“Most of our mishloach manos are shipped to arrive on Taanis Esther. When people receive a gift, they feel the need to reciprocate, and our phones are ringing all day with frantic calls to do whatever it takes to get a return mishloach manos shipped,” says Mr. Oelbaum.

And Mrs. Markowitz has a message for the public: Your package was delivered. Really. “To all the wonderful people who put in so much thought and effort into selecting, spending, and deciding on the perfect gift for the perfect person: We do our best to be a part of your giving. But realize that once the package is received, it’s the responsibility of the receiver to say thank you to you!”

But if you’re not sure, “Kindly call the store in a calm, friendly manner and request someone to call the recipient and confirm that she received the package, then let out a sigh of relief and wait for the thank-you call to come.”

And if you’re lucky enough to be the recipient of a package, Mrs. Markowitz pleads, “Try to make an effort and send a text to your friend that you received her gesture.” It spares the customer service rep a panicked call, and it’s just good middos.

Corona Changes

Now let’s talk about the viral elephant in the room.

Last year’s Purim season was very uncertain, says Mrs. Guttman. Coronavirus was threatening, and rumors of quarantines and lockdowns were swirling. Lockdowns in Israel didn’t actually begin until right after Purim, but Greenberry expected a difficult season post-Purim.

It didn’t exactly play out like that though. While functioning in lockdown was a challenge — there were even packages delivered by off-duty ambulances, since no one else was allowed to be out and about — the breakfast business is thriving. “Sending packages to doctors is very popular right now,” says Mrs. Guttman. “It really does give them energy for that extra caring.”

People who test positive for the virus might also send a package to the co-workers they accidentally exposed to the virus, and family and friends send care packages to loved ones in quarantine. Unfortunately, Greenberry has been making deliveries to shivah houses as well — people want to show love when they can’t be present.

Broadway Basketeers has seen a similar lockdown boom, but Mr. Oelbaum notes that there’s no way to know how COVID will affect his Purim business this year. “In our regular business the volume picked up tremendously,” he says. For all the holidays that would usually warrant a visit or going out to dinner, socially distanced customers sent gift baskets instead. Companies sent more gifts than usual to replace office interaction and maintain positive relationships.

But because Purim last year precipitated the first wave of infections and lockdowns, this year is unpredictable. People might decide to give fewer mishloach manos this year — or they might decide to have it shipped to avoid contact.

There’s simply no way to be sure: “We can plan,” says Mr. Oelbaum, “but everything’s in the Hands of the Ribbono shel Olam.”

It’s a thought I keep hearing from the various interviewees. Each one mentions the tremendous siyata d’Shmaya they see in their business — from how their businesses were created, to the returns they see on their investments, to the way they’ve thrived despite the competition offered by myriad specialty companies.

And none of them are worried by competition. “We know there are competitors out there,” Greenberry’s Mrs. Guttman says, but their existence just strengthens the breakfast trend. She goes as far as to say that “Their ads double our orders,” and create more business for everyone in the market.

“There’s parnassah for everyone,” agrees Mr. Oelbaum.

The Personal Touch

To distinguish themselves from the pack, however, all three companies have developed a specific niche. Glitz, being a gift shop, bases every mishloach manos around a beautiful gift item, from serving bowls to clocks and wine racks. They’re also proud of the unusual offerings they source and the variety of styles used in packaging.

“We like to be different,” says Mrs. Markowitz. “We travel a lot to import different items; we like exclusivity. It should stand out as something unique.” They have a designer who creates packages, but they are careful not to have a specific “look,” so everyone can find something to appeal to their own personal style — though they’ll also create custom packages for retail and commercial customers. “Sometimes people would like to give a gift that isn’t advertised,” she says. “So we specialize in custom mishloach manos for mechutanim, chassanim, and kallahs.”

At Greenberry, on the other hand, the food is the gift — and they make everything from scratch. “Young couples have called to ask where they can find our yogurt, because they don’t like anything else they can get in Israel.” Mrs. Guttman laughs. “It’s homemade!”

It isn’t just the food, though. Greenberry is careful to have everything wrapped to perfection, with wooden cutlery and ribbons and bows and even napkins to match any occasion — from welcoming a baby to birthdays and, of course, Purim.

“Yes, we’re commercial, but we keep it very homey. And you’re getting something so healthy and appetizing.”

Broadway Basketeers brings something else to the table. “Our advantage is that we’re not a retail outfit,” says Mr. Oelbaum. Everything is designed to be shipped, and because it’s factory produced, “the package will arrive exactly as you see on the website,” says Mr. Oelbaum, down to the precise angle of a wine bottle. “We ship thousands of pieces a week, so we know what we’re doing.”

Are there any changes or trends these businesses have noted recently?

Greenberry has begun to see seminary girls placing orders instead of just receiving them. “They order for each other, especially because they can’t meet up as much now. They also order for themselves because they’re ‘starving’ and there’s nowhere to get food.”

Families of students in Israel for the year have also begun sending to the people supporting their children. “People are ordering for their kids’ roommates and hostesses — and teachers, rabbis, seminary staff…”

Broadway Basketeers says they’re seeing a demand for healthy packages, as well as those without common allergens.

And Glitz has noticed their customers’ preferences leaning toward sleeker, more compact packages, rather than big and busy.

Is it all professionalism, emotion, and shiny cellophane? Mrs. Markowitz has my favorite story. “We once rented a temporary location that had been a cleaners. There was a long vent in the ceiling, which we assumed was closed. One night, when we were working late, at 3 a.m., a huge weasel stuck his nose and spooky eyes out from the ceiling! Don’t ask me where it came from — we don’t usually see those in Boro Park!”

Thankfully, the ceiling was too high for the little intruder to cause any damage to humans or packaging, and an exterminator dealt with it the next day. “We closed that hole and lived happily ever after,” Mrs. Markowitz says cheerfully. Just another day in the wilds of Brooklyn, I guess?

All three companies deal with tremendous volume, but all of them have held on to that personal touch. Greenberry is the sort of place where you can ask where to order a baby gift to go with your mazel-tov-breakfast order. Mrs. Markowitz and her husband regularly give out their personal numbers — “My phone dies three times a day” — and their customers become their friends within minutes of entering the store.

And all company owners clearly love what they do.

“In the Purim season you get to see the dynamics of Klal Yisrael,” Mr. Oelbaum points out. “It’s mind-boggling what people are doing for each other. You’ll be typing in a message from somebody, to a doctor or a parent, and you sometimes have to put the customer on hold because you need to catch your breath from the emotion going into the notes.”

These gifts are created to build relationships. And after all, isn’t that what mishloach manos is all about?

Moving Moments

Any business that involves customer interaction will see the full range of human behavior, but in a field that’s all about connection, there will always be stories of generosity and grace. Here are three that touched me most.

Esty Guttman shares:

“There was a grandmother who called at the beginning of last year and asked us to deliver muffins and iced coffee to her granddaughter in seminary every Rosh Chodesh. When the seminary girls left Israel early due to corona, we stopped charging her.

“She called and asked that we continue to charge the card and send the food to cancer patients and people in need, people who might be taken care of but don’t get these extras. It’s not a necessity, just something nice, a little luxury during lockdown — she just wanted to brighten someone else’s life.

Mrs. Markowitz recalls:

“An organization ordered beautiful mishloach manos with customized challah trays for their donors, with each one engraved with the logo of the organization and the name of the recipient.

“After Pesach we got a package in the mail from Israel with a handwritten letter on loose-leaf paper: Please tell so-and-so that we appreciate the gift, but we have no use for it…. He shipped it back, engraved with his name, so we could use it because he didn’t need it. What he paid in return shipping from Israel was probably more than the tray was worth, but he didn’t want it to go to waste!”

Mr. Oelbaum remembers:

“We had a little boy from Williamsburg — he’s probably married with a family now — who always wanted to send his mother a gift basket for Purim. He would call us up every year to order and then send us an envelope filled with nickels and dimes.

“His mother would call after Purim to check that everything was paid, and we always told her it was taken care of. Of course, it was never the correct amount, but we never bothered counting because it was so touching….”

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 732)

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