Sympathy Food Irks Florists

August 14, 2011
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Funeral home owner David Storke was born in the late 1960s, so he knows a little bit about flower power.

But the businessman and Bowling Green mayor learned more about it when he recently ran afoul of the floral industry.

In addition to Storke Funeral Home, Storke runs sympathyfood .com, a company he launched in 2008 that allows people to send food to those who are ill, grieving or have lost a loved one.

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The website’s slogan, “a comforting alternative to flowers,” put Storke in a thorny situation with the Society of American Florists. The Alexandria-based trade association sent an email earlier this year asking him to reconsider his marketing approach.

“SAF realizes your need to promote your product but supports respected principles that suggest doing so on your own merits rather than disparaging another product,” wrote Jenny Scala, marketing director for the association, which represents more than 10,000 florists, wholesalers and flower growers nationwide.

Storke said he was floored by the email.

“When I first started reading it, I thought I was getting sued,” he said. “It came across wrong to me.

“It was mean, kind of like a bully. I was really shocked that something as big as the flower industry would say something like that.”

According to the SAF website, the U.S. flower industry had $35.2 billion in sales last year, a $2.7 billion increase compared with 2009. Its consumer trend data shows that only 5 percent of flower-giving is for sympathy or memorial purposes.

“So I’m not hurting them that bad,” Storke said.

He did suggest that the rising number of cremations in this country may put a dent in their sales because, “if there’s no burial, there’s no flower spread.”

In a phone interview last week, Scala said she vaguely remembered the email that was sent to Storke and said the association routinely contacts companies that “choose to put down flowers as gifts.”

“We do contact companies and ask them to promote their own product without saying something negative about flowers,” Scala said. “We do hear back from companies saying that they didn’t realize they were doing something negative and they take out those references.”

The association’s website lists 39 companies Scala has contacted about their “harmful remarks,” including national chains. Of those, 23 did not respond.

Storke said he thought about responding with a humorous comment, but then decided against it.

“I think I’m going to be like the bigger guys on their website and just not respond,” he said. “I thought it was over the top and they didn’t need to do that. A policy of intimidation doesn’t get them anywhere.”

Storke said that other than the email from the florist association, the response to sympathyfood.com has been positive.

“It’s been better than I thought it would be,” he said. “At the end of April, we had done more in sales than all of last year.”

His website launched in early 2008 with a test market east of the Mississippi River. He’s been selling and shipping sympathy food nationwide since 2009.

Dinners range from barbecue chicken to crabcakes to roasted duck with vegetables and dessert. The cost runs from $75 to $195. The food comes precooked and frozen, and just needs to be reheated.

Although Storke’s 27 years as a funeral director led him to the idea, he has adjusted the website to downplay the bereavement angle and promote sending food anytime someone needs support.

Storke said the company meets the need of a centuries-old Southern tradition and wasn’t at all meant to slight the florists or the floral industry.

“I never said flowers need to go away or be replaced, I just think a lot of times and in some instances, food is a benefit during that time of need,” Storke said. “There’s always going to be flowers. It’s a nice way for people to let people know they care. But so does food.”

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