The growing health-consciousness of the '90s has been a boon to Incredibly Edible, said Susan Ellman and Ellen Davis, the sisters-in-law who founded the original venture. Since the arrangements are preservative-free, they are delivered the day they're made, and the territory is limited: within a 30-mile radius of each shop.
Still, calorie conservation sometimes takes a back seat to the pleasure principle.
For the die-hard chocolate addicts, Incredibly Edible has designed one arrangement that features a jar of fudge sauce into which strawberry tulips and pineapple daisies can be dipped, and another with a chocolate-covered apple as a centerpiece.
Naturally enough, Incredibly Edible favors fruits and vegetables that are colorful and do not turn brown after they've been cut. For fruit baskets, designers use pineapples, strawberries, grapes, kiwi, honeydew and cantaloupe. For the "Veggie Vantasia" basket and the "Party Pickin's" tray, they use carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, pea pods and broccoli.
Nine arrangements are available year-round, and range in price from $38 for a basket that feeds four to $195 for an arrangement that feeds up to 40.
Marion Hofbauer discovered Incredibly Edible Delites 2 1/2 years ago when she was working at Martindale's Natural Foods in Springfield, Delaware County.
A local chiropractor sent the store's employees a basket of edible flowers as a thank-you gift for referring patients to him. Hofbauer, a former cake decorator who at the time was reading about the advantages of a healthy diet, said that diverse experiences and interests came together with that gift: "I felt that I had been led to this."
When Ron Hofbauer learned that he would be laid off from General Electric, where he had worked as a manager and technician for 26 years, he and his wife decided it was time to fulfill their dream of starting a venture together. ''We'd been looking for our own business for a long time," he said.
The couple contacted Ellman and Davis, who had considered selling franchises of their concept, but were wary. The Hofbauers' nearby location and persistence got the talks rolling; once the sisters-in-law got to know the Hofbauers, they sensed dedication and a commitment to delivering a high- quality product. That cemented the deal.
Ellman and Davis received an initial $20,000 franchise fee and will earn a royalty on the new shop's net sales. Although it took the flagship venture three years to break even, Ellman and Davis are convinced that the new location will be profitable by the end of its first year.
Running this type of business means contending with a host of uncooperative forces.
First, the company is at the caprice of Mother Nature. Although fruit supplies vary according to season and weather, both Ellman and Davis emphasize that it's almost always possible to procure the necessary produce - for a price. The company employs a produce buyer who shops for ingredients to meet each day's orders.
The company also is at the whim of wildly fluctuating customer demand. Spring, the winter holidays and graduation time are generally the busiest times, but the flow of orders is unpredictable.
Davis recalled the 1985 Philadelphia magazine article that called Incredibly Edible Delites a hot new company.
"We weren't hot until they said that," she said, laughing.
Ellman remembers scrambling to meet the torrent of orders that followed, likening the scene to an I Love Lucy routine.
Parties and gift-giving are not the only sources of sales.
"In many months," said Davis, "condolences are the mainstay of what we do." The baskets have been purchased as thank-you gifts for hospital nursing stations, as get-well presents, as apologies for a business goof, or even as advertising to potential clients.
Finally, the owners must be able to cope with the highly perishable nature of their wares.
None of the labor-intensive process of cutting, peeling and skewering produce can be performed in advance. For this reason, Incredibly Edible needs at least a day's notice to prepare and deliver a fruit basket, and two days' notice for vegetable creations.
The Westville workshop, which employs five people, has the capacity to prepare up to 150 baskets a day in its spacious kitchen, which smells as syrupy-sweet as a strawberry patch in summer. This location delivers to homes and businesses within 30 miles, but the Hofbauers hope to extend delivery to the Jersey Shore by summer.
When asked the most hard-won piece of advice the owners could offer the new franchisees, Ellman said, "You have to learn what you do well."
This, she emphasized, is sometimes a matter of saying no to orders that overtax limited resources.
The company's owners envision more franchises, but not until this one is on its feet.
"We're like turtles," said Ellman. "We move a little slower and more cautiously. We want to make sure things go right."