Lessons In Franchising And Entrepreneurship With Edible Brands Founder And CEO Tariq Farid

Food & Drink

It surely has a lot to do with his immigrant upbringing, having arrived in the United States from Pakistan as a child in the ‘70s. His early jobs at Burger King and McDonald’s also played a big role. Working in the family flower shop ultimately pointed him in the right direction. It all lead to one place. Tariq Farid and his brothers opened the first Edible Arrangements store in 1999.

Fast forward 20 years, and the company has more than 1,200 locations in 12 countries, all serving a product and vision that were largely born from Farid’s unique life experience and a deep passion for entrepreneurship. The following interview explores this life, his success in franchising and the next chapter for Edible Brands.

Rob Reed (RR): What is the genesis story for Edible Brands and Edible Arrangements?

Tariq Farid (TF): I got into the flower business when I was really young. My parents came to the US when I was 12 and everybody had to help. I started a job at about 13, 14 just watering plants at a neighborhood florist with this gentleman named Charlie Farricielli, just one of those amazing young entrepreneurs who took care of everyone.

I walked into his shop one day and said — it was a cold day, it was December, it was really cold and I was tired of delivering newspapers and asked, ‘Do you have a job?’ I think he more felt bad for how frozen I was at that time, and he said, ‘Sure. Come on down, kid. You could water plants and help people.’ That’s where I learned about business. I watched him in action.

By the time I was 14, 15, I had pretty much learned how to take care of customers by watching Charlie. I was an apprentice, and I was just happy to have a job. Started out first job at Burger King, then McDonald’s. Then at 17, my father saw an ad in the paper for a flower shop for sale. Actually, they were having a liquidation sale, they’re out of business. We went and bought a flower shop for $6,000. I borrowed money from my father’s boss.

That started the journey. In 1999, I saw this concept of fruit bouquets, and it totally made sense. I could see it. I could see where this could go and how relevant this would be. We started making fruit arrangements and sending out to our flower customers in 1999. As they say, it was just history after that. It just clicked.

RR: I can totally relate to that feeling. You cannot not start the company, right? When you have that vision and it feels so right. Even though a lot of people were telling you it’s wrong.

TF: We had the flower shop, very successful flower shops. When I started Edible, my father’s best friend was a professor and he brought him over. I very proudly had this brochure that I had made, and I am showing him the brochure. I want to do this. I’m going to open up multiple locations. He goes, ‘Well, you have a pretty good business. I think you should really focus.’ He tells my father, ‘I really would advise you to have your son focus on the flower business. I don’t think this is going to work.’

Then after that, my father was concerned, everybody was concerned. I know you’ll relate to this, and I’ve been telling my kids this. There is just this thing where you can see it, you can feel it and you know it’s going to work. You don’t know how successful it will be, but you know it’s going to work. I just had that feeling, and no one would understand. I went to a bank, asking for $120,000 and they denied me. They said, ‘Well, a Subway franchise is cheaper, why don’t you buy that?’ I’m like, ‘Guys, this is going to be — it may not be big, but this is going to really relate with the customers and the customers will love it.’

RR: I think it was Steve Jobs that said something along the lines of, ‘If you want to connect the dots going forward, you have to connect the dots going back.’ That was my entrepreneurial journey, having all these different dots that I was connecting from my experience. Therefore, I could see into the future about what the market was going to need. What were some of the dots that you were connecting? Obviously, the flower shop was a big one.

TF: I think gifting is a very important component in America. Even when we’re in a crisis such as a death in the family, there is a celebration component of it, because we know we have to move on and we want to be there. I saw that, and food is just such an amazing gift. With flowers, you would always hear that complaint from the customers, ‘It was beautiful, but I wish it lasted longer.’ When I saw this, it was just sort of like all those things that I’ve worked on, which is coming together.

I was doing flowers for almost 13 years, very passionate about it. I started an IT company computerizing flower shops. We’re totally into the web stuff and other things. You kind of have this perfect moment where, instead of telephone and call centers, you could put a website together and gather orders, that you can kind of put in front of thousands of people instantly through a website. Then the product was perfect for almost any occasion. You take a pineapple, you cut it into a heart, it’s love. You cut it into a daisy, it cheers you up.

There was just so much you can do with it, and we just started to have fun. Our mission statement from the beginning has always been to wow you. The reason that happened was that, when customers would come in, it was February or March and they say, ‘Well, pineapple usually doesn’t taste good in January when I buy it from the grocery store.’ We would say, ‘If the person who receives it doesn’t use the word “wow” when they call you, we will give you your money back.’ It just clicked. People were like, ‘Wow.’

We were doing experience before all the talk about experience because the experience had to be amazing. That guarantee sticks till today. I mean, that whole thing of, when you make a new product, if you look at it, if the word ‘wow’ isn’t in the sentence, go back to the drawing board, then you’re just forcing it.

RR: Were these fruit arrangements being done at the time, or is this a category that you completely pioneered?

TF: No, it was done before. It was done by — there was a small company in Philadelphia. Yeah, there are other people doing it. When I started to look into it, cruise ships would do these really big ones. A lot of it was waste, right? People would pick through things. It was more art and decoration. We spent a lot of time on how do you make it practical. Because in the beginning, we were doing everything by hand. You can’t make 50, 60 arrangements and cut thousands of pieces by hand. We had to invest a lot of money and energy on automation. We ended up getting some patents in the process.

A lot of those things were done to mass produce because it was a very unique process. Everything was fresh. When you place an order, it’s made within hours and delivered. Delivered in a refrigerated vehicle. There were a lot of firsts, but that was fun because that made it unique. That made the experience unique. Not only that, we weren’t copying anyone.

RR: Your experience working at McDonald’s was pretty critical to learning about the processes, yes?

TF: Back at middle school, they had this program that as long as you had good grades, they give you a little piece of paper that you could get a job at 15. I got that piece of paper and got a job in Milford, Connecticut, and I took a bus from West Haven. It was about eight or ten miles. I would go there on the bus, and my father would pick me up at night. I learned so much at that Burger King in six months because everything was a system, everything.

When I got to McDonald’s, it was all these processes of the temperature had to be perfect, the timing of how long the fries stayed. I always tell everyone that every teenager must work at a McDonald’s or Burger King because you learn systems. You learn this experience of hundreds of years. The same thing you saw in The Founder, that everything is a process, it’s a dance. That helps when you do your businesses, because then, those systems are very, very important. Otherwise, it will be chaos.

We set up a production line right from the beginning as in to how the fruit was going to move, how the production would be done. It just got better, and better and better. It was critical. I learned so much including a lot of their greetings and the training process. I remember, I was 16 years old, got a job in McDonald’s. They fed me two days and trained me by watching VCR tapes, just like how you’re going to do different things. That was amazing, and that’s how I learned how a training system works when I did my own business. It was a great experience.

RR: Was the vision then from day one to franchise, from that first store?

TF: Not at all. We wanted to open a store. My vision and my approach was always bigger and kind of deeper than my pockets. As soon as I opened one, it was doing really well. I wanted to open a second one. That’s when I went for a bank loan to say, ‘I want to open one. It’s doing really well’ and I got denied. Then we just focused on one store and just do it right. Somebody walked in and he used the word franchise, I remembered. It was a very interesting conversation; his name is Chris Dellamarggio. He was visiting his mom in East Heaven. Saw the arrangement, fell in love with it, was looking at the business, walks in and —

I always tell people, ‘The opportunity is what you seek and you go after, and risk is what you mitigate. You don’t look at it and kind of start with the negative. You look at the opportunity and you forget everything else and you just make it possible.’ He walks in, he goes, ‘Hey, are you guys franchising?’ I knew about franchising, that was McDonald’s and Burger King for me. Of course, I’m like, ‘Yes, we have been. Of course, we have been.’

Back then, I looked in the yellow pages and who do I find? Michael Seid. He was in West Hartford, Connecticut. He was a consultant. He’s a consultant in franchising. I got on a phone with him and he gave me pointers on what to do and things like that. Within a few weeks, I had my real estate attorney put together our first franchise document. He told me, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’ and I said, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing either. Let’s just do it.’ We put together our first document, and we signed an agreement and opened our first store in Boston.

RR: What’s the current state of the company? Let’s get some of the numbers. How many locations?

TF: Close to a thousand stores. We’re on what we’re calling Edible 2.0. It’s our 20-year anniversary last year. Right now, in 2020, we’re relaunching the brand. Of course, everybody got affected by COVID, so we felt that. But we had seen something similar in 2008, and of course, this is much more substantial, but doing well and have done well. Had a great 20-year run.

Now, looking to reinvent the company with a much deeper product line, more than just arrangements. Arrangements will always remain our core. We’re doing cheesecakes, we’re doing cookies. You’ve got a whole bakeshop going on in a store. We’ve just added some flower components — there’s always that ‘enjoy it now and then look at something for a whole week.’ We’ve got this flower concept we’ve launched. A lot of innovation, a lot of things happening as we reimagine the brand for the next 20 years.

RR: Compare the two crises, because you definitely weathered the financial collapse in 2008. This is a much different type of financial crisis. Are you seeing like some similarities and some differences between the two and how you’re dealing with them?

TF: In 2008, when the crisis hit, there was this feeling within the system that we should just hide in our shell, ride it out. Let’s save, let’s protect everything. We’re going to lose some of the stores, we’re going to lose some business, but let’s just kind of ride this out.

I started Edible in 1999, and a year later the whole dot com thing happened. At that time, what we had seen — we only had two or three stores. What we saw at that time was, we went out and we started to get aggressive, because there was a value proposition. People were looking for something of value. Food really does well. As we see know, home delivery. It just took off.

At that time in 2008, we had the two D’s. We had digital and we had delivery, so people can easily connect with us. Our web was doing well, but what we had to do at that point was tell everyone we’re still here. ‘We’re delivering. Get it now. We’ll come to you’ and we did well. What we did in 2008 was, we went on TV. We had never gone on TV, and everybody thought I was crazy. ‘You want to advertise now?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Let’s collect, 4% and let’s go on TV and let’s get really aggressive about advertising.’ ‘Well, no one is advertising right now.’ I said, ‘Exactly. No one is advertising. That’s what we have to do.’ It worked really well. We had really good years. In that decline was some of our highest growth. We went from 2000 and 2012, and we almost doubled in sales.

Then of course, we get to COVID. The first two weeks were just scary. It was just scary. What can we do? Same thing, those same conversations happened. Luckily, a lot of our franchisees had gone through 2008 and they knew. When we said, ‘Guys, we need to double down. What do we need to do? What do people need right now? Well, we have vehicles, we deliver. People need whole fruit, so why cut it?’ We just started delivering whole fruit to people’s homes. For $19 a box, we started delivering whole fruit. With that, we became essential in lot of areas.

Then after about few weeks, there are so many people who couldn’t meet loved ones. They wanted to send them something. We were the perfect gift, and we were there to deliver what they needed. We had the two D’s at that point. We had our digital business, where our store business slowed down, and then we had delivery. Delivery is a big component. We kept our own fleet. We never really went to Uber or third-party, where a lot of systems were moving to that. We always felt that there will be a bottleneck there, and it worked. Same thing we did again, we doubled down on advertising. I mean, it was probably our best Mother’s Day ever and best sales growth ever in the last six months.

RR: Well, I’d say, that’s a wow.

TF: Thank you. It is. We’re so thankful.

RR: Have you been actively involved in marketing the company and building the brand throughout? Are you still the face of the brand?

TF: I am involved but less so. I have a great president who’s running the company. My daughter runs the ecommerce business, and does a great job. Understands the business of the customers that are coming or shopping now and the future customer. In my time when I was very active, that’s what I did well because I knew what that customer needed. I think with that, we have a very diverse group.

I guide more than anything, and then make resources available. The team says they want to do something, or they’re a little hesitant at something. That’s where I’ll tell them our experience, ‘Guys, we went through this in 2008. We went through this in 1999 when we were tiny. This is what we did and this is what happened.’

I always believe that the ones who are going to be the future leaders should be the face of the brand, and you need to train the next generation.

RR: Can you speak to how the company is marketing today? Is there a lot of localization? Are the franchisees doing some of their own marketing locally with corporate support or independently? How do you balance those?

TF: First, we’re two different businesses. We have a franchise business, which is very local, hyperlocal. You have to know your neighborhood, participate in your neighborhood. We’re an occasion company, so you have to celebrate and participate in all those occasions that are happening, be it around the holidays or at schools and other things. Very, very important. That’s what we feel has always built our brand. We started out with that. We didn’t go on TV till 2008, so we have to be very good marketers at the local level. The franchisees have to be very involved in the local community, so people know where the location is.

Second, we’re a last-minute, last-mile business. With that, you must advertise last minute, and you must tell people about the last mile. There was a lot of that local, so we will give guidance to the franchisees on what to do. Then, they’re advertising locally. A lot of those people will go to the web, so the web has to be connected. But the web has changed so much that previously, people would look for a location but go online and then shop now. They shop online and then they’re surprised, ‘Oh, they have a store here,’ and maybe I can pick it up.

It’s kind of turned upside down. Where before, the web was an afterthought. ‘Oh, I went to the website to check their hours. They’re open. They’re a store here.’ Where now, they want to shop online and possibly pick up if they think it’s more convenient. We had to transform our business, so we turned it into two divisions. Because you can’t advertise digitally the way you advertise locally. Locally, it’s very connected. You want to feel like you’re in the neighborhood. That had become a little hard because everybody wanted to do digital advertising without that local advertising. Everybody wanted to do Google and others.

There is that component. We give a lot of freedom to the franchisees on what to do, but we give ideas on what they do. A lot of times, we’re just in awe and wild with what franchisees do, be it little open houses, local events, shows and other things. Then just show up at a school for a Mother’s Day type of thing. The others are digital. There, you have to be on trend. We have some really smart people and agencies that that help us do the digital advertising, stay ahead of the trend, how to bring customers back.

RR: I’ve read about your move into CBD. What’s the strategy here? Are you going for broad distribution? Is this a fundamentally separate business from the franchising?

TF: I like the franchise model. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for the franchise model, because I can never raise enough money and never borrow enough money. I’m in awe of these young lads that can go and raise millions of dollars. I think with that, franchising works because there’s local representation. There’s someone local who’s just as passionate as, if not more passionate than, the one who’s at the national level. I will stick to the franchise model, but it may take a little while because there’s some restriction as to CBD adoption.

Somebody decided a long time ago that when they’re going to put CBD or other things into a brownie, they’re going to call it edibles. We own the Edibles trademark, so —

RR: That worked out.

TF: Yeah. With that, I was for the longest time fighting it. But then, when I started to look into CBD, especially the CBD component, it’s hard to pass up with all the health, and health conscious and all the things that people are looking at. I’m a big fan. We started in Wallingford at our old office. We’ve started a lab, and we’re putting together a team, where we’re creating products with CBD infusion, creating an ‘Incredible Edibles’ line. It will be a separate company, but our whole objective on it is, I’m not into the high part or anything. A lot of people fear that’s what it is.

When I looked at this, I saw a lot of health benefits, a lot of people taking it. I’ve always said that about 10% of the people maybe want to do the recreational from a high point of view. Ninety-nine percent of the people want to see the health benefits of it, see if it will do something for sleep and other things. That’s the market we’re trying to go after. We’ve always stayed all natural; fruit, be it baked good and other things. There is an opportunity there of creating a franchise of local outlets that are making fresh — some infusion and you can get some of these things. You can take it home. That’s what we’re building right now. We have one store, which was kind our test store, and we will start building some more stores and then take it national.

RR: How would you characterize the current state of franchising? Would you encourage entrepreneurs to pursue this model in 2020?

TF: Most people underestimate franchising. There are two entrepreneurs involved in franchising. There’s a local person who’s taken his life savings and says, ‘I’m going to make this thing work and I’m buying into it.’ Then there’s a national who has a lot of experience. When you combine the two, it’s really hard to put those people down. I feel the companies that were ready with the two D’s, that they had the digital component of their business and then they had delivery, they did well. I think most of them will adapt. These are long-term trends. How many times have people said, ‘McDonald’s? Oh yeah, no one will eat there anymore, this or that,’ and it’s only grown.

This is a unique situation where everybody is affected by it. I think we will get to the other side of it. It may take a little while. But as long as people are willing to pivot, as long as we adopt this digital part and we understand that delivery is going to be a very important component, brands will do well and most brands will adjust. I think they will have to adjust on their own, instead of just depending on third party. Because the amount of money you leave on the table with that, it’s really difficult to justify. I think with that, a lot of brands are pivoting. Sometimes it takes a pandemic, it takes a crisis to wake you up.

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