MONROE, Wis. —

Hundreds of tiny blocks of chocolate cake and cream ramble down the conveyor at The Swiss Colony. A waterfall of chocolate splashes over them before a bakery worker drizzles more chocolate on top.

The catalog company's bakery produces nearly 54 million petits fours per year, with most sold during the Christmas season. It claims to be the nation's largest producer of the tiny French pastries, which are one of its best-selling items.

While Americans are spending less overall on presents, sales of food gifts grew almost 50 percent to nearly $16 billion from 2004 to 2006, according to Packaged Facts, a division of Rockville, Md.-based MarketResearch.com.

About one-third of consumers shop for food gifts during the winter holidays, it said.

Researchers and shoppers say food has the same one-size-fits-all appeal as gift cards but with the added allure of

giving friends and family something they wouldn't normally buy for themselves.

While shopping for family in other parts of the country, people may not know what clothes or electronics to get, but food "is a universal gift," said Kenneth J. Sousa, who teaches e-marketing at Bryant University in Rhode Island.

Debbe Geiger, 43, of Cary, N.C., said she is giving a variety of food gifts this year after her nephew sent her Omaha Steaks' bacon-wrapped filet mignon last year.

"I thought he pegged me well," she said, explaining that she enjoyed the steaks but was too practical to buy them for herself.

Food gift companies can do as much as 75 percent of their business during the winter holidays.

Competition is fierce, said John Baumann, president of Swiss Colony.

"All you have to do is go on the Internet and look up 'cheese gift' or 'sausage gift' or 'food gift' or 'food items' and literally thousands of different shopping options are going to pop up," he said.

The most successful companies offer uncommon products that people are willing to pay both a premium price and the cost of shipping to get, said Domenick Celentano, who teaches entrepreneurial studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

Food gift companies bank on family tradition. Medford, Oregon-based Harry & David started shipping Comice pears, which it sells as the trademarked Royal Riviera pears, in the 1930s. They are still its top seller, executive vice president Bill Ihle said.

Caryn Mauser, 45, of Kenosha, began sending her family Harry & David gift baskets that include the pears two years ago after her mother sent her a gift from the company. For that particular gift, I knew they would all like it," she said. "I had no doubt."