by Andrea Doyle | March 29, 2016
Gifts of food have been offered as a sign of peace and friendship since ancient Egyptian times. Francine Segan, a food historian, author, and TV personality, points out that famous kings, queens, and diplomats of the past understood the strong bond a gift of food could create.

"King Richard the Lionhearted once gifted a flock of delicious birds and prized venison to foreign dignitaries," says Segan. "As recently as last year, New York City's Mayor Bill de Blasio was given a truffle by the Italian town of Alba that was valued at $12,000."

What was true two centuries ago is even more relevant today, making a good meal "an ideal incentive program gift," Segan adds. Companies such as Omaha Steaks, Godiva, and Harry & David have been impressing incentive recipients for years, and now several new companies are coming on strong.

Christine Martin, founder of San Francisco-based Style & Entertaining, and a former high-tech business development executive, is taking a more experiential approach to incentive gifts, with dinner party kits that teach how to prepare delicious meals featuring healthy California fare and offer a bit of business dining etiquette. From a shopping list that helps one easily navigate a local farmer's market or grocery store for fresh, locally sourced ingredients, to easy-to-follow cooking lessons, chefs' techniques, tips, and timelines, the kit also includes old-school custom invitations and envelopes, scent-free votive candles, elegant menu cards and place cards, and dinner napkins.

There is also a new kingmaker in the incentive gourmet food arena: Mark Cuban, serial entrepreneur and owner of the Dallas Mavericks. After two appearances on ABC's Shark Tank, Cuban invested in David Alwan's Echo Valley Meats, a Peoria, IL-based company with self-described "old-fashioned butcher shop" quality.

"I am the third generation in my family in the meat business," says Alwan. "I'm also a cattleman and farmer who knows meat, from conception to consumption."

Echo Valley products have entered the incentive industry and are available through direct sales reps, distributors, and other channels. After only a year in this arena, sales are booming, says Alwan, who had just finished facilitating an incentive order of 3,000 sausage-and-cheese boxes that led to a follow-up order for 3,000 additional gift cards. Cutting boards, knives, and boxes can all be personalized.

Though Omaha Steaks, with its high-quality, grain-fed beef and other gourmet foods -- seafood, pork, poultry, sides, and desserts -- is a familiar and beloved name in the incentive industry, it's also enhancing its offerings: beef jerky and pork Hunter's Sausage have been added to its offerings, as well a line of BBQ Rubs.