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Concepcion Morales and Maria Vega (right) add finishing touches  to gift baskets, which are offered in a wide range of sizes.  Photo by Geraldine Warner

Concepcion Morales and Maria Vega (right) add finishing touches
to gift baskets, which are offered in a wide range of sizes.
Photo by Geraldine Warner

This year, brothers Scott and Addison Webster expect to send out 100,000 gifts. Each one is a basket or gift box containing fresh fruit—usually apples and pears—plus an eclectic assortment of the most tantalizing edible goodies they can find.

The brothers operate a 170-acre pear and apple orchard, founded by their grandfather Roy in 1942, and a gift pack business that they launched themselves in 1999. Both are located at Pine Grove, near Hood River, Oregon.

Addison is president of Roy Webster Orchards, while Scott is chief executive officer of the gift company. Both grew up on the family orchard but went into other professions after college, something their father, Wayne, encouraged them to do.

“Dad and Mom have always had the opinion we should get our educations and go out and get experience we can bring back,” Scott said.

Scott sold computer telephony software for a company based in Boston, while Addison was an accountant for Moss Adams in Yakima, Washington. They returned to Hood River in the late 1990s just when their father was thinking of retiring, and they bought the orchard from him.

Returns squeezed

Soon, they were thinking about direct marketing in an attempt to capture a bigger share of the profits being made on fruit. “We were looking at what we were getting from the grocery stores and what the grocery stores were charging consumers.

We thought, ‘Can we get some of that profit for ourselves?’” They own 170 acres of orchard and lease another 30 acres. They grow more than 18 varieties of fruit and are among the largest producers of Bosc and Comice pears in the Hood River Valley. They have a relatively low proportion of d’Anjou compared with other pear growers in the Northwest.

The brothers felt they were well positioned in terms of their varietal mix, but were worried about the long-term impact of foreign competition and the difficulty of competing with Southern Hemisphere producers who have lower costs. They saw their returns being squeezed.

Roy Webster Orchards has done some direct marketing in years past, but the challenge used to be a lack of shipping infrastructure. When Scott and Addison tried it, they found that shipping costs were too high in relation to the value of the fruit. That’s when they came up with the idea of selling premium and value-added products via the Internet, drawing on Scott’s experience with the technology.

Their gift company is called simply The Fruit Company. While some might dismiss the name as unimaginative, it was carefully chosen to be picked up by Internet search ­engines looking for anything fruit related. During their first two months in business—in November and December, 1999—they sold 550 gift baskets or boxes. Volume has more than doubled each year, reaching 48,000 items in 2004.

The brothers are expecting to double that number again this year. Besides taking orders directly from consumers, the company sells wholesale to more than 350 other gift companies. Their smallest gift box contains two pieces of fruit—two size 64 apples or size 60 pears, or one of each, for $8.95.

Their largest gift basket, called “Oregon’s Cascade,” ­contains several varieties of fresh apples and pears packed with oranges, kumquats, smoked salmon, summer sausage, cheese, crackers, dried fruit, preserves, chocolate-covered strawberries and blueberries, chocolate toffee almonds, caramel and choc­olate popcorn, pistachios, shortbread cookies, caramel fruit dip, and toasted almond ­English toffee—for $199.95.

The bulk of their sales are in the $30 to $60 range. They also sell fresh cherries and other stone fruits, which are shipped in boxes with ice packs because they’re too fragile to mix with other items in baskets. The box lids feature watercolors by local artist Marilyn Bowles, which are designed to be cut out and framed. Members of their Harvest Club receive a different selection of fruit each month in keepsake boxes. The artwork is changed each year.

Competition

The brothers make themselves aware of what their competition is doing. “We try to have our prices be close to theirs and ­deliver a little more than they deliver,” Addison said. Scott said the attractive packaging is one of the ways the company strives to differentiate itself from the ­competition, which is primarily Harry and David. “We don’t skimp on anything,” he said. “It’s no different from buying flowers.

It has to look beautiful.” Another point of differentiation is customer service. All baskets are packed to order and are shipped out the same day if the order is received by noon. None are prepackaged. The company welcomes special requests. “We’ll do almost anything the customer wants. We even advertise that,” Scott said. Despite the phenomenal growth they’ve experienced so far, the brothers say they want the company to stay small enough that they can continue to offer personal service.

But most important of all is the quality of the fruit—both in appearance and taste. “With every gift that goes out the door we’re trying to get one thing to happen,’ Scott said. “We want the recipient to be so knocked over that they call that loved one right away and say, ‘This is the most beautiful fruit gift I’ve ever gotten.’ If we can do that, we don’t just have one ­customer, we have two customers.”

At harvest, the company skims off the gift grade fruit, which must be large, sweet, firm, blemish free, and better than top grade. Last year, about 20 percent of the Webster orchard’s production went into gift packs. The rest is sold through ­Diamond Fruit Company, Hood River, through the regular channels.

Comice

Comice is the preferred pear for gift packs because of its outstanding flavor, and they continue to plant more, but it’s difficult to grow and pack because it is fragile and scuffs easily. Addison has experimented with sorting out the gift grade fruit in the field, which requires more pickers and closer supervision, but he now thinks it might be best done in the packing house to avoid handling the fruit so much.

“The more times you touch the pear, the more chances for scuffing,” he ­explained. In the coming season, some sorting will be done in the field, but the fruit will be graded on Diamond Fruit Company’s packing line, which will be specially modified for the job. The line will run slower, some brushes will be removed, and changes will be made so the fruit doesn’t have far to drop.

Fruit that is less than perfect will continue to be culled out right until the point it goes into the basket. Addison said the gift grade fruit is put into cold storage and brought out as needed. He tries to set aside a little less fruit than he thinks they will need, because he would rather buy more fruit when they run out, than end up with too much.

Best Quality

Though the brothers prefer to sell fruit from their own orchards or the Hood River area, they buy it wherever they can find the best quality. They’re always looking for growers to supply high grades of many different types of fruits. Since they don’t grow many apples, most of their supplies come from Washington. The baby pineapples that go in the gift baskets are from South Africa.

The brothers have developed close relationships with certain suppliers who know what they need. When it comes to selecting other treats to put in the baskets, the emphasis is still on premium products. They use local jams, but include pecan popcorn from Texas, simply because it’s so good.

Each year, they spend two full days at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco looking at what every vendor has to offer. They’re experimenting with some big and expensive baskets. “We’re going to be coming out with something that’s bigger,” Scott enthused. “We want to do a $1,000 gift basket.” The brothers are experiencing the joy of giving, in more ways than one. “The Fruit Company has been our saving grace,” Scott said.

mine Grove, Oregon, is a quiet little town without even a stop sign, but brothers Scott and Addison Webster are hoping that a fruit museum will revive the community and make it a popular stopping place for thousands of tourists. The brothers run The Fruit Company, a supplier of premium fruit gift baskets, which is housed in an old cold storage building formerly owned by Diamond Fruit Company. The 161,000-square-foot two-story building was constructed in 1939 and is strategically situated alongside the railroad at Pine Grove, which is just outside Hood River.

In former days, boxes of apples and pears were carried out of the building on conveyor belts and loaded on trains to be transported to market. In 2001, after Diamond Fruit Company relocated its packing facility, the Webster brothers leased the vast building for their fledgling gift enterprise, with an option to buy. Last spring, with business more than doubling each year, they decided to exercise that option.

The Fruit Company still occupies only a fraction of the space, however. It has offices and an assembly line where the fruits and gourmet foods are packed in baskets. At the front of the building is its outlet store offering local value-added and other gourmet products.

The brothers are making the rest of the building available for a Fruit Heritage Museum, which is part of a community effort to promote agricultural tourism in the valley. The Hood River County Museum is collecting artifacts for displays about the fruit industry in the area. The Fruit Foundation is raising money for the project. A pickers’ cabin built in the 1930s, and an even older tractor are already on display, but the museum won’t be ­completed for another couple of years.

Big deal

However, the railroad has begun making stops at the building again— not to pick up fruit, but to let off ­passengers. The Mount Hood Railroad carries 60,000 tourists each year on excursion trains from Hood River to Parkdale, near the foot of Mount Hood, and all will have the opportunity to get off and visit the displays and The Fruit Company’s store along the way.

“It’s a big deal for the museum,” Scott said, “Because of the train traffic, this museum becomes the second most ­visited museum in Oregon.” It also fits with The Fruit Company’s plans. “This location and this building are key to our whole plan of not only packaging and shipping gifts, but also the tourism aspect,” he added. “Pine Grove is an area we hope will be restored back to its 1940 glory days.”

It was in 1942 that their grandfather Roy Webster came to Hood River from New York and established 600 acres of orchard with the help of a partner. He later sold off most of the acreage, but the family still has 170 acres close to the building where The Fruit Company is located.

The business already draws visitors who arrive by car or tour bus, and the brothers offer twice-daily tours of their orchard, shuttling tourists in their tractor-hauled “Fruit Company Express,” a former film-studio tram. The 35-minute tour covers the whole fruit growing process, from blossom to harvest, and includes a visit to the gift packing line, where visitors learn how the fruit is packed and sold all over the country.

“We would like people to be educated about the fruit industry to understand the vigorous things we go through as farmers to make fruit safe and to treat employees with dignity,” Addison said. “There’s real value in U.S. fruit, and if U.S. fruit goes by the wayside, the U.S. consumer loses control to make things safe. “We want this not to be looked at as a museum. It’s going to showcase the past, the present operation, and the ­future.”