Tariq Farid knew he had a good idea.
It was the late ’90s and Farid, who owned a flower shop in East Haven, was seeing fruit baskets designed to look like floral arrangements popping up more and more. Hobbyists would make them for friends and family, some flower shops dabbled in their design and there was even a book about them.
At his flower shop, Farid, who had moved to West Haven from Pakistan with his family when he was 11, began experimenting with these fruit arrangements. Customers were enchanted by them. It seemed like everyone who received one called to see if they could send one to someone else, and Farid could hear in the voices of these callers the kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement the intricate fruit baskets elicited.
Farid, then in his late 20s, thought that with his new fruit-arrangement concept, he had found a great business opportunity. Investors and loan officers at the bank didn’t agree; instead they treated him like Norville Barnes in the Coen brothers film The Hudsucker Proxy. In that movie Barnes (played by Tim Robbins) is the fictionalized inventor of the hula hoop. When Barnes shows people the “plans” for the invention, which consist solely of a circle on an otherwise blank piece of paper, they can’t see what the circle represents. “You know, for kids,” Barnes attempts to explain. People look at him like he’s crazy.
Farid seemed equally as crazy as he attempted to explain his concept to people. Someone asked him if he had done a focus group. Not entirely sure what a focus group was, Farid replied “yes.” He explained he had made one of the fruit arrangements and taken it home to his mother who had said, “Wow, this is going to be really big.”
When he presented the idea to loan officers at banks and elsewhere, he says, “I looked like I was on some type of drug like speed or something. I’m going, ‘THIS IS GONNA BE BIG,’ and they’re like ‘it’s fruit, in a basket.’” Not hearing the lack of enthusiasm in people’s voices, Farid responded with unabated passion, “Yeah, it’s fruit in A BASKET!”
Fruit in a basket had become his real-life version of “you know, for kids.”
Eighteen years later it’s clear “putting fruit in a basket” was a good investment. Today there are more than 1,300 Edible Arrangements franchises worldwide and the Connecticut company boasts about $550 million in annual sales. Earlier this year it was included in Entrepreneur Magazine’s Best of the Best Franchises list. Beyond Edible, Farid owns several companies including Netsolace, a computer software distributor for the franchise industry, and SKF Properties, a property investment and management company.
Despite his success, Farid doesn’t believe in resting on one’s laurels, not even if they’re dipped in chocolate and served as part of a fruit basket.
One of his business tenets is “innovation never ends.” He’s written that he constantly asks himself “if I were starting this business today, how would I set it up; what would I do differently?”
To that end he has embarked on a major process of reinventing the Edible brand. “We’re changing the brand from a [gift and delivery] company to an experience company,” he says on a recent afternoon at Edible Arrangements’ Wallingford headquarters. “It is the scariest time in my life,” he admits.
Friendly, with an infectious enthusiasm, Farid has a gift for storytelling and looks younger than his 48 years. He explains that as part of Edible’s reinvention, he hopes to expand the existing franchise locations from online-order fulfillment centers into brick-and-mortar destinations where people regularly go to treat themselves. The heart and soul of this innovation is the Edible to Go program, which offers a full assortment of frozen yogurt and smoothies made with the same fresh, “never frozen” ingredients that already go into the arrangements. The program seeks to take advantage of the existing retail space of the Edible Arrangements locations and the inventories of fresh fruit every store maintains.
Sixty percent of stores have adopted the program and more are on the way — franchise owners were being trained in smoothie-making at the Edible Arrangements store at the Wallingford corporate headquarters during our visit. Of the 36 stores in Connecticut, nearly half offer the Edible to Go concept. The Windsor and Hartford locations are in the process of converting and will offer the program by the end of the year. The remaining Connecticut stores will be converted over the next few years.
Farid has gone all in with the concept: earlier this year he bought back a minority stake in the company he had sold in 2012, returning ownership of the brand entirely to his family. Though he’s excited about the future, Farid admits a mix of worry and fear about the transformation.
“In business you have to be cautious; only fools of business are not cautious,” he says. “You have to be paranoid because that’s what makes you do things properly and perfectly.”
These are welcome emotions for Farid. It’s the same fear he felt back in the ’90s when he was struggling to open his first Edible Arrangements shop. It’s a healthy fear that comes not from dread, but from excitement and the thrill of pushing forward into the unknown. It’s a feeling Farid knows well.
EDIBLE TO GO
Of the 36 Edible Arrangements stores in Connecticut, 16 currently offer the Edible to Go concept with frozen yogurt and smoothies: Avon, Branford, Bridgeport, Danbury, Derby, Enfield, Fairfield, Hartford, New Haven, North Haven, Norwich, Stamford, Torrington, Wallingford, West Haven and Willimantic.
In 1978 Farid’s father, Ghulam, bid a temporary farewell to his family in Pakistan and headed to the U.S. alone. Settling in West Haven, he washed dishes at a steakhouse and saved money for his family back home. Two years later he brought his family with him to the U.S., leaving behind the world he knew so his children would have more opportunities.
“He’s the bravest guy in the world for doing that. He left his family, he left all his friends, he left everything,” Farid says.
The family settled in West Haven, where they flourished. “My mother [Salma] felt that her life, her freedom started the day she arrived in America,” Farid says. Both his parents instilled in him a work ethic that would make a drill sergeant proud. One of his first jobs was as a paperboy for the New Haven Register. He also slung french fries at McDonald’s and got a job at a West Haven flower shop where he learned the ins and outs of the floral industry. When he was 17 his family bought an East Haven flower shop for him to manage when not attending high school. A self-taught computer wiz, Farid designed the IT systems for his store and then started a business designing IT systems for other flower shops.
Before all this, Farid’s earliest job was in West Haven working for a neighbor named Mary. She would hire kids to mow her lawn in the warm months and shovel snow from her driveway in the winter. In addition to the agreed-upon payment, they’d often be rewarded with a cookie.
Farid was so eager for the work that during winter storms he would arrive at her house, shovel in hand, before it stopped snowing. “She would be like, ‘Hun, the snow hasn’t stopped yet.’ I’d say, ‘I know, but I don’t want anyone else to get the job.’” After assuring Farid that he had the contract, she told him, “If you keep working this hard, by the time you’re 35, you’re going to be a millionaire.”
Those words had the power of prophecy for Farid, inspiring and emboldening him. (Farid is unsure of Mary’s last name and has since tried, unsuccessfully, to track her down and thank her.)
Many years later when the banks didn’t like his idea of “putting fruit in baskets,” and he found himself unable to get a loan, he pushed forward. When friends told him the idea was foolish, he pushed forward.
“I only get advice from people who have accomplished things that I want to do,” he says, noting that he never paid attention to many of his skeptics because, he would think, “They’ve never done this, how could they know?”
Instead Farid would seek out business owners he had admired for advice. From the owner of the flower shop where he started working at 13 to the late Fred DeLuca, co-founder of Subway and an early fan of Edible Arrangements, Farid had many teachers along the way.
“My mother used to say a great thing,” Farid says. “She said, ‘Knowledge is like water — it flows downhill. So if you want to take benefit you have to lower yourself. If you find somebody of knowledge, chase them down and sit in their shadow so they can teach you.’”
Instead of listening to those who did not believe in the Edible Arrangements concept, he listened to those who supported it, and he heard the voice of his old neighbor in his head every time he encountered naysayers. If you keep working this hard, by the time you’re 35, you’re going to be a millionaire.
The first Edible Arrangements store opened in East Haven in 1999. Success didn’t literally come overnight. But it almost did. People reacted to the baskets with genuine delight and often used the word “wow” when describing them. That gave Farid the idea of offering a “wow” guarantee to customers — if a person received an Edible Arrangement as a gift and didn’t use the word “wow” when describing it, the company offered a full refund. Farid says they have never had to refund a single basket.
In 2000, with the first store open for only a year, Chris Dellamarggio, a businessman from Massachusetts, walked in and asked about purchasing a franchise. Dellamarggio had been visiting his mom in Connecticut and saw an Edible Arrangement she had been sent.
Farid responded as if franchising was something he had already been carefully considering and said he would need to speak with his attorney and get back to Dellamarggio. After Dellamarggio left, Farid looked up a franchise consultant in the Yellow Pages. In 2001, Dellamarggio opened the first Edible Arrangements franchise in Waltham, Massachusetts.
It was the first of many franchises.
For Farid, success has never been about the money.
“My mom used to say, ‘Don’t chase money, it runs really fast. Go do the right thing and it will follow you,’” Farid says. He adds, “If you’re simply chasing money, you’re just going to be miserable because there’s so many times that it’s not enough.”
Farid has three children from his first marriage who are young adults, Somia (who works as the special projects manager at Edible Arrangements), Marriyan and Fatima. He has three children with his second wife, Asma, who are all under 10, Zaynab, Muhumed and Humza.
In addition to his children, Farid’s passion outside of work includes giving back through the Tariq Farid Foundation. Farid’s mother, Salma, who died before Edible Arrangements fully took off, taught him the importance of giving back. Through the Tariq Farid Foundation he donates to local nonprofits such as IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Service) and the Connecticut Food Bank, as well as international nonprofits, including Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan and Aid All Syrians.
Explaining the motivation for the foundation, he writes on his website, “Since my family immigrated to the United States when I was just a child, I have had the opportunity to experience firsthand the many benefits and blessings this great country has to offer. I strongly believe that with success comes responsibility. As a proud American and a living example that the American dream is alive and well, there is no greater feeling for me than knowing that I am now able to help others who are less fortunate as they strive to achieve their dreams.”
It was this foundation that made Farid, who is Muslim, the topic of a rumor around 2012 claiming his foundation was funding Hamas. The Anti-Defamation League has twice denounced the claim, saying in 2014 “there is absolutely no truth to these unfounded assertions.” (For unrelated reasons, the Connecticut branch of that organization presented Farid and his wife, Asma, with the Torch of Liberty Award earlier this year for their work in Greater New Haven.)
Farid doesn’t like to harp on that ugly moment. “They were mostly calling me out for my religion and my background and started saying crazy stuff. Did it bother me? Of course, you lose sleep over it,” he says, but adds, “I never, ever focus on the negative stuff. I never share my stories when I may have been discriminated against, when somebody may have said some kind of a comment which was questionable, or say something when they walk into your shop like ‘go back to your country’ or whatever it is. I never share that because my good experiences have been so many that this negativity is so minute that for me to give it attention would be disingenuous, or unthankful for the blessings that I have.”
Instead of these fleeting negative moments, Farid, who became a U.S. citizen in 1986, is focused on the uncountable positive moments from his life. “It’s beyond a dream,” he says, before once more mentioning his former West Haven neighbor Mary. “For her to say to a 13-year-old immigrant kid who probably didn’t even dress right because my parents struggled at that time, ‘Honey, if you keep working this hard you’re going to be a millionaire,’ I feel that was the start of my American dream. She planted the seed that if you work hard, you’re going to do something here, you’re going to be big. And that’s what happened. … I was a millionaire by the time I was 35. It’s definitely an American dream.”