If imitation really is the sincerest form of flattery, then Susan Ellman and Ellen Davis have been flattered the world over—though not necessarily in the best way.
From their kitchens in Broomall, they propelled a fresh industry into the mainstream 30 years ago. And while their concept has spread internationally, they’ve never reaped substantial rewards for their innovation. As partners in FruitFlowers, they’ve faced stiff competition and crippling adversity. They’ve since recoiled and formed a new team, vowing to “fight forward” rather than continue to fight back against those who’ve taken their concept and called it their own.
Inspired by a local cooking class, Ellman began sculpting fruit in her kitchen in 1984. Back then, such arrangements were only available in cruise-ship buffets or at catered events. She first gave it a try at a local synagogue celebration. It made an impression, and she began fielding requests to enhance tables at parties. “Each time we delivered [an arrangement], it was a unique experience,” says Davis, Ellman’s sister-in-law, who was involved, as well. “It took on a life of its own. Now, we’re proud of our longevity. It wasn’t a flash in the pan.”
But it was flashy enough to grab the attention of Tariq Farid, who is now the owner and CEO of Connecticut-based Edible Arrangements International. Ellman and Davis met Farid through his software company, which had developed a computerized point-of-sale system for floral retailers. He worked with them for a week in 1997 and saw how busy they were. It was enough to compel him to sell his business and launch Edible Arrangements.
“We were naïve to the industry,” Ellman admits now. “We wanted our idea to not be the typical franchise. We’d targeted a maximum of 100 units, and it would’ve worked, if there was no competition.”
Instead, their franchise model regressed while Farid’s progressed. In hindsight, Ellman and Davis realize that they should’ve been investing money into growing their own franchise, rather than fighting the competition. Until recently, they’ve been afraid to be aggressive, bite the bullet, and move forward. But the time has come. Food, after all, is a universal commodity—and so are lessons learned.
New York transplants, Ellman and Davis have backgrounds in education. Ellman taught first grade in Philadelphia public schools. Davis grew up in the family bakery business before becoming a speech pathologist. Both would be enjoying their pensions right now, had they not become entrepreneurs.
For their first year in business, they alternated home kitchens. Starting at 4 a.m., they shaped and arranged fruit, cleaned up, then made deliveries. (A GPS was a luxury then, so they had no idea where they were going much of the time.) “Fruit was falling out of our refrigerators,” Davis says. “My kids would open the refrigerator, and melons rolled out.”
In 1985, they converted a Broomall home into a commercial space. They figured they’d spend a couple of days a week there processing orders. It’s been seven days a week for almost 30 years.
By the early 1990s, Incredibly Edible Delites had made Entrepreneur magazine’s list of 50 unique businesses. As the nation began to eat healthier, their business became healthier. Franchising inquiries poured in from all over the world. Overwhelmed, Ellman and Davis filed away the correspondence at first, and still others approached them. In 1993, they began franchising in South Jersey. Soon enough, they were humming along, with 35 units coast to coast.
That all changed in 1998, when Edible Arrangements stormed into the market with an aggressive plan to open a shop, literally, every five miles. It now has some 1,200 units. Forbes.com took notice this past April, reporting that Farid’s company had grown from $500,000 in sales in 2001 to $500 million in 2013.
Ellman and Davis freely acknowledge the obvious: Edible Arrangements has “gargantuan reach.” There are 49 stores in Pennsylvania alone, including King of Prussia, Exton, Media, Villanova, West Chester, Wynnewood and Drexel Hill. By contrast, a mere five FruitFlowers franchises have survived-—one each in Wilmington, Del., Bucks County, northern New Jersey, southeast Florida and Utah. The others closed under the “strain and confusion.”
“It’s been very sad for us,” Davis says. “A lot of people invested their hopes in our dream.”
Ellman and Davis have had legal run-ins with Edible Arrangements—some to their benefit, some not. They can’t disclose the terms of settlement agreements, but they now own the Fruitflowers.com domain name. Farid didn’t respond to an interview request for this story.
“You’ll know us by our marshmallow in the opened strawberry—it’s something that’s ours,” says Davis. “Our pineapple daisy flower always has eight pointed petals, not to be confused with other daisy flower configurations.”
As for trademarks, patents or copyrights, various lawyers have told them there’s no violation because, side by side, the two companies’ arrangements look slightly different. Davis and Ellman call that “watered-down advice.” They’re fiercely proud of what they started. Davis’ son has been the company’s creative director for the past eight years, and with 10 mostly part-time employees, they’ve served hundreds of thousands of customers.
In the past six months, Ellman and Davis have sprung into growth mode. Hoping to invigorate and expand their existing brand, they’re scouting new locations in Philadelphia, Cherry Hill, N.J., and the Washington, D.C., area. “It’s who we are and how we identify ourselves,” Davis says. “We know we created this industry. We have way too much invested financially, spiritually and emotionally to turn our backs on it. If we let go, we’d be letting go of everything.”
The ladies admit that, when you’ve run the same company for so long, you run out of ideas and strategies. So they brought in COO Gary Willison and operations vice president Edward Fitzpatrick to reenergize the franchise concept.
The product line is already set for expansion. The target audience: Everyday business meetings. Currently, 30-40 percent of their business is with corporate clients. They’d like to double that by turning a fruit basket into a routine option, not merely a sporadic one. They’ve begun training their staff to think of themselves as “brand ambassadors.”
There have been some small victories. FruitFlowers made the centerpiece for a recent Philadelphia Business Journal event held for its “30 healthiest places to work” celebration. Ellman and Davis now better understand franchising—especially how locations need to grow out from the hub in a circular direction, like spokes on a wagon wheel.
Before, it was “little dots on a map here, there and everywhere”—a plan that never could produce critical mass like their competition could. Before they knew it, they were surrounded.
“We don’t want to look backwards,” says Ellman. “On our 30th anniversary, we’re looking at ourselves and saying, ‘Let’s get it together and do it.’”