Politically correct business gifts

When Beth Ross’s obstetrician delivered her baby, he also gave her a business, at least indirectly.

The doctor sent Ross a gift in the hospital. And, she says, it was tacky. So much so that she called him to complain.

“I said, ‘how can you have so much money and such bad taste?’” Ross said. “And he told me I should start a business of providing tasteful gifts.”

So she did. In 1990, Ross founded Washington Basket Company, which assembles and delivers gift baskets for a great variety of occasions.

“It’s so old-fashined and traditional that everybody gets it,” Ross said. “And it’s in the area of political correctness – not too much or too little.”

With WBC, the emphasis is as much on the political as on the correct. Ross began the business in “the other Washington,” and it was a lucky accident that after her husband was transferred from the nation’s capital to the Northwest, the name was still usable.

Before starting the basket business, Ross was immersed in D.C. politics as a producer for CBS News. That understanding of the sometimes labrynthian ways of Capitol politics helped build her business.

“I was kind of inside the beltway, and knew people’s tastes,” she said. “We knew how to get into the White House.”

WBC’s specialty became gift baskets to political figures, frequently from Washington lobbyists and law firms.

Satisified recipients became customers, Ross said. But there was also the matter of creating visibility, which she calls “the name of the game in D.C.”

When it comes to visibility, it’s hard to beat photos with the First Family. And the wall of Ross’s office/warehouse in the Day Road Industrial Park prominently features a picture of Ross with Barbara Bush, from the days when she was First Lady, not First Mom.

“Barbara Bush was doing a fund-raiser for literacy during the Gulf War,” Ross said. “I made what I called my ‘Millie Wagon,’ and filled it full of food.”

The wooden toy wagon, a tribute to the First Dog, was labelled “I (heart shape) Millie.” When the First Lady saw the wagon, she came over to Ross’s booth for a closer look.

“Then the photographers came over and started shooting pictures,” Ross said. “And a few days later I got an envelope from the White House with big pictures of me and Barbara Bush inside.”

Ross made up a gift basket for President George Bush (the elder), and began doing work for the White House.

“But it’s a bipartisan basket company,” she said. “The Clinton White House used us as well.”

The gift baskets generally feature food items from around the country. Currently, she is including such things as pretzels from the Pennsylvania Amish country and North Carolina apple-pie cookies, which come in a flag-emblazoned box.

“The packaging has to be exquisite and the taste fresh,” Ross said.

Ross assembles small orders herself, has a couple of people on the island who help her on occasions, and sends out big orders to outside “fulfillment houses,” she copy samples that Ross makes.

Costs begin at about $50, although large quantities can be done for less.

The most expensive basket she’s done was a $2,000 affair for a Saudi businessman who had flown his children to D.C. on the Concorde to see cherry blossoms.

The one occasion for which she almost never makes baskets – only one in her career – is Easter.

“I don’t think the moms are willing to give that one up,” she said.

After five years of doing business in D.C., the family had to move west. And when they did, Bainbridge was an easy choice of where to live.

“We’d flown over Bainbridge in 1994 while we were on the way to a fishing trip, and I asked the pilot what it was,” she said. “I said right away that it was someplace I would have to check out.”

For four years, Ross was out of business, being a full-time Mom. She picked things up again last year, dusting off an old rolodex listing customers and suppliers.

The quarters were not auspicious. The only thing available in the Day Road park was a storage shed.

When Watson Furniture moved to Poulsbo in July, she took over a portion of that space.

Ross has regained many of her customers, she said, and finds that operating a business in one Washington that primarily serves the other one isn’t really a problem.

“I send images to clients by e-mail and samples by UPS,” she said. “Then I fly quarterly to D.C. They actually think it’s novel that I’m here – a lot of people there have heard of Bainbridge.”

WBC has also diversified its business. They put corporate logos on all manner of goods such as shirts, coffee mugs, paper weights, wine openers and so forth, turning them into promotional products.

“That’s our real bread and butter now,” Ross said.

In addition to promotional flair and good taste, Ross says there is one other essential ingredient to her business – discretion. Her client list is an absolute secret, and perhaps even more so are the contents of the personal messages she is asked to write on the cards.

“I think the Washington Post would kill to know what is in those messages,” she said. “And the part of me that was a news person loves that stuff.

“But I’ve never told, and I don’t keep any records.,” she said. “It would be a good book, though.”

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