Wrap up shopping without the maddening crowds

December 08, 1993|By Kirsten A. Conover | Kirsten A. Conover,Christian Science Monitor Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Got your phone, catalog and credit card handy? Now you can send Uncle Ernie that six-pack of hot sauce for the holidays -- without setting foot into a store or even creasing a sheet of wrapping paper. Last year, more than half the adult U.S. population ordered merchandise by phone or mail, spending about $51 billion, according to the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). This year, catalog sales are expected to climb to almost $55 billion.

Although food accounts for only a small fraction of all catalog orders, purchases doubled from 1.6 percent in 1990 to 3.2 percent in 1991, according to DMA. (Clothing is No. 1.)

Not surprisingly, the winter holiday season is the busiest time of year for most food catalog companies. "Half of our business is at Christmas time," says Wendy Eidson, co-owner of Mo Hotta-Mo Betta, a mail-order company in San Luis Obispo, Calif., specializing in hot and spicy food.

It's hard to go wrong with a food gift. "You can give it to practically everybody. One size fits all," says Susan McIntyre, owner of McIntyre Direct, a catalog agency and consulting firm ++ based in Portland, Ore.

Sophisticated packaging and fast, reliable shipping have boosted business, McIntyre explains, noting that even fresh meat -- as opposed to smoked -- is shipped overnight these days.

Out of the hundreds, possibly thousands of companies to choose from, we checked out some that piqued our interest or came recommended. Thanks go to Allison Engel and Margaret Engel, authors of the book "Food Finds," for their vision In the past decade, the Engels have investigated hundreds of food producers that offer mail order -- some of which we mention here.

For more information on mail-order food, check out "Food Finds," (HarperPerennial) and review catalog directories. "The Mail Order Gourmet" offers a directory and bimonthly newsletter ($12); (800) 989-5996.

And don't forget, when it comes to food, word of mouth can often be the best guide.

Here are some we tried:

* Shelburne Farms

102 Harbor Road

Shelburne, Vt. 05482

Phone: 802-985-8686

Fax: 802-985-8123

This 1,000-acre Vermont farm is a nonprofit conservation-education center, dedicated to teaching and demonstrating the stewardship of natural agricultural resources. Their award-winning Cheddar cheese is made from the milk of their own purebred Brown Swiss cows. Their catalog features various Vermont farm products, including boneless ham and maple syrup.

We received the Farm Sampler: a 2-pound block of sharp Cheddar, raspberry jam, honey and 1/2 pint of pure Vermont maple syrup. ($35; includes shipping.)

* American Spoon Foods Inc.

1668 Clarion Ave.

P.O. Box 566

Petoskey, Mich. 49770-0566

Phone: (800) 222-5886

Fax: (800) 647-2512

This folksy company offers the bounties of a northern Michigan summer: Fruit-packed preserves, fruit butters, salad "dazzlers" -- dressings, dried cherries, cranberries, blueberries, dried mushrooms -- and other regional specialties. Also, Chef Larry Forgione presents his own line of products. Folk-art gift boxes and birch-bark baskets make for a lovely presentation.

We received the Fruitlands Box: strawberry preserves, Red Haven peach preserves, sour-cherry spoon fruit (no sugar), seedless red raspberry butter, dried red tart cherries, dried cranberries and dried blueberries (with recipes). (The Fruitlands Box sells for $40, including shipping, for addresses east of the Rockies; add $2.50 for shipping to Rockies or west of Rockies.)

* Frieda's By Mail

P.O. Box 58488

Los Angeles, Calif. 90058

Phone: (800) 241-1771

Fax: 213-741-9443

The mother-daughter team of Frieda and Karen Caplan runs this company specializing in exotic foods, including tropical fruits, herbs, chiles, elephant garlic, squash and wild mushrooms.

We received the Exotic Fruit Basket: passion fruit, feijoas, pepino melon, red bananas, horned melon, Asian pears, manzano bananas and more. (5 pounds of fruit costs $66, including shipping. A helpful guide to exotic fruits with recipes is enclosed.)

* Harbor Sweets

Palmer Cove

85 Leavitt St.

Salem, Mass. 01970-9859

Phone: (800) 243-2115

Fax: 508-741-7811

For 17 years, this small company has been making high-quality, handmade chocolates with a nautical theme. Sweet Shells, Barque Sarahs, Marblehead Mints, Harbor Lights, Sand Dollars and Sweet Sloops (almond-butter-crunch triangles dipped in dark and white chocolate) are just a few of the specialties.

Most agree that the chocolates are well worth their price in terms of quality and taste (no artificial ingredients). We received the Gift Assortment, which is $23 for 32 chocolates (12 ounces). Shipping runs $3.95. Chocolate dinosaurs are a non-nautical item sure to delight kids.

* Coyote Cocina

1364 Rufina Circle, No.1

Santa Fe, N.M. 87501

Phone: (800) 866-HOWL

(866-4695)

Fax: 505-473-3100

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