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With Food as Gifts, Christmas Is More Flavorful for Shippers : Holidays: When it comes to edibles, the mail-order business is booming. Presents include jam, coffee and tea.

December 17, 1995|HILLARY CHURA | ASSOCIATED PRESS

When Christmas lights come out, so does Dr. Michael Vitale's credit card and his telephone. The orthopedic surgeon sends gifts of liquor, bagels, fruit and other epicurean delights to friends and family.

Vitale said he has no time to comb store shelves in search of the perfect gift, so he drops $1,000 each December and lets the postman play Santa Claus.

"If I had to go to the store and do everything personally, it would never happen," he said from his home in New York.

Vitale and other harried consumers around the country are helping build up the mail-order food business. People order by mail for the convenience, but also because smoked salmon and gourmet chocolate chip cookies can be hard to find in the hinterlands, said Ron Tanner, spokesman for the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade.

Bob Lynch, treasurer of the Lollipop Tree in Portsmouth, N.H., ships bagel and speciality bread mixes, jellies and syrup. Sixty percent to 70% of his mail-order business is in December, which is typical for the industry.

"I don't know what people do with all their time today, but nobody seems to have any," he said.

Tanner said mail-order merchants, including many that traditionally did not sell food, find edibles are good business because they are quickly consumed.

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"If you buy a coffee grinder for $20, you may have it for 10 years. If you buy a specialty bottle of olive oil for $20, six months from now, it will be empty, so you will be buying that again," Tanner said.

Williams-Sonoma, the specialty cookware retailer, started selling food through its catalog five years ago. The San Francisco-based company sells everything from $8 sweet Vidalia onion relish and $9 roast-garlic-and-lemon bread to $125 caviar gift packs.

Spokeswoman Donata Maggipinto acknowledged shopping through the mail is not the most economical way to mark names off your holiday list, but it saves time and keeps people from fighting the masses at the malls.

"Lots of people don't like to deal with the Christmas crowds and would much rather sit down in the comfort of their own home with a cup of tea and peruse a catalog," she said.

A Southern Season has had a store in Chapel Hill, N.C., for 20 years and been doing mail order for a decade. It ships more than 500 kinds of coffee and tea, wine, cheese, cured meat, cookies, cakes and bread, but chocolate and other candies are its biggest sellers. December is by far its busiest time.

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"We wouldn't be in the business without the fourth quarter. We spend all year working toward the fourth quarter--getting ready for it, pulling it off or cleaning up from it," owner Michael Barefoot said.

Harry and David, the Medford, Ore.-based mail-order company, has been shipping food for 61 years. The company gets as many as 37,000 calls a day in December, spokeswoman Diana McLaughlin said.

"The public has learned they can wait until the last minute, and it still can happen," she said.

Philomena Barbieri of Oakville, Conn., spends about $100 per year on fruitcake, cheesecake and Harry and David pears.

"I hate shopping, so when I find something in a catalog that I think somebody will like, I pick up my checkbook. It's very simple, plus it gives me something to do when nothing is on TV," she said.

The extra money does not bother her.

"I don't have to go to the post office and stand in line," she said.

Jan Bunker of Amherst, N.H., sends $200 to $300 worth of honey-baked hams, coffee, tea, jams, cookies and other food--not because it's cheaper than sweaters, blenders and porcelain statuettes but because she is guaranteed a hit.

"I know it's something that's useful. It's not something they will place on a shelf to get dusty. It's not going to not fit. It's not going to be the wrong color," she said.

People also like mail order because it allows them to send unique gifts. Organic oats from the Vermont Cereal Company in Cabot, Vt., for example.

"It's thick. It tastes like something as opposed to the sawdust that corporate America passes off as oatmeal," owner Andy Leinoff said.

Seroogy's candy of DePere, Wisc., has been in Joe Seroogy's family for 90 years. Christmas accounts for 40 percent of the orders for items such as chocolate meltaways, nuts, turtles, fudge and brittle.

"Our candies are the same now as in 1905. It's a little different slant than people who go into drug stores and buy a box of Whitmans or Russell Stover," Seroogy said.

Annette Boyer of Colorado Springs, Colo., hails from DePere and has been sending Seroogy candy as presents for 12 years. She picked up the habit from her mother.

"Most people I know are like me and really appreciate good chocolate, but it's not something you buy for yourself," she said. "And it's better than a fruitcake."

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