Books and bagels, sweets and services, hardware and home repairs — they’ve all been found among discounts and free samples in the baskets Dee Strilowich brings when she comes knocking on newcomers’ doors, ready to sing the praises of local businesses.

“Freebees are very popular,” she said, “free bagels, free pizza, free chocolate.”

For 25 years Strilowich has been the friendly face and soft-sell voice of the Ridgefield business community, greeting newcomers to town with a smile and a useful description of what her sponsoring businesses have to offer.

“I just walk up to the door, knock on the door, and someone comes to the door,” she said.

She’ll have done her research, though.

“Most of the time, I know who they are. I’ll say ‘You must be Mike. You must be Lauren. I’m Dee. I’m the welcome lady!’

“I say ‘I can do a visit in an hour or so, right now, or we can make an appointment to come back at a better time.’ I never push my way in. That’s now welcoming! And, of course, a big smile on my face.”

In July 1994, Strilowich began representing the Welcome Wagon, a national organization that dates back to 1928. She began ‘first baby of the year’ promotions, appeared on television’s Today Show, was written up in the New York Times. She was Welcome Wagon representative of the year in 1996.

But when Welcome Wagon dropped the personal visits for a direct mail approach, she recruited her husband Joe to join her in launching their own business.

“We called it Personal Touch Welcome because I was a true-believer in the personal touch and in home visits,” she said.

It began in January 1999.

With hard work, and that ever-ready smile, the business flourished, representing local business to new homeowners in Ridgefield and Redding.

Soon — around the end of August — it’ll be coming to an end.

“I’m retiring,” she told The Press.

“I want to get involved in more volunteer local opportunities in town, spend some more time at Founders Hall. I’m a heavy reader. Spend some more time with my family.”

Dee Strilowich’s approach works because the sponsoring businesses fill her welcome basket with valuable offers — and she’s ready to talk about them.

“My visit does take between an hour and an hour-and-a-half, because I’m very detailed,” she said.

“I go through every single item in the basket, one sponsor at a time, and introduce them to the sponsor,” she said. “It’s a very personal visit.”

There’s a wide range of stuff in the “kit” as she calls it.

“The ‘smile bag’ is gift certificates,” she said. “People keep it in the car and just take it with them when they go to redeem their gift certificates. Nothing expires.

“Go to Pamby’s, hand the attendant this card, and he’ll pump you five gallons of gas, free.

“Paris Hair Salon they give a complimentary haircut with any color service, or they give you 50% off any haircut. So, you have a choice. They were in the welcome basket when I had my welcome visits back in 1970.

“Books on the Common: $10 off anything in the bookstore.

“Ridgefield Hardware is $10 — everybody needs $10 off something a hardware store.

“Ten dollar gift certificates are good values,” she said. “I like $10 better than percentages — but I let the owners decide.

“I have 10 restaurants and food (businesses) from The Early Bird Cafe, Deborah Ann’s chocolates, The Hickories, Nature’s Temptations,” she said.

“Deborah Ann’s gives away a half pound of fresh fudge. She’s had the same card for over 20 years — no reason to ever change it.

“The Early Bird Cafe, they give a free breakfast or lunch.

“Eddie’s Pizza, he gives a free pizza, any size, any toppings, up to a value of $18. You can get a nice pizza, medium or large, for that price you can get a lot,” she said.

“The better the value of the gift, the more people are going to take advantage of it.”

The idea, of course, is that once someone has enjoyed their free whatever-it-is, they’ll be back as a paying customer.

It works. And that’s why some of business have been Strilowich’s sponsors for years, decades.

“Steve’s Bagels was the first business to come aboard,” she said. “The original owner, Steve, came aboard the very first day I went out to sign up businesses. They’ve had three owenrs since, and every one of them signed up as soon as they took over. They never changed the offer: a dozen free bagels — a baker’s dozen, thirteen — and he lets you pick out whatever you want…

“They’ll put it in your freezer. That’s to let people know: buy a dozen and freeze it.”

Eight-pocket folder

Something she calls “the eight pocket folder” is another tool.

“I have it categorized into eight different categories,” she said. “ ‘Professionals’ like doctors, wellness — it’s really a wellness packet.

“The second is ‘contractors’ including electricians, plumbers, carpenters.

“Then I have another called ‘other home services’ — the chimney cleaner, the trash people, the oil companies, the gutter cleaning, the locksmith…

“‘Outdoor services’ is huge. I have a lot of outdoor services. That’s your landscaping and arborists. Young’s of Ridgefield is part of that, they do fencing and landscaping.

“A ‘financial services’ packet.” This includes Northwestern Mutual Insurance, Cristina Andreana, CPA, and also Edward Jones investments.

“One is kids’ activities, and schools,” she added.

How does she make a living at it?

“The sponsors pay me a small fee and each visit I do,” she said. “I bill them every month at the end of the month and they send me a check, We’ve kept it so simple...

“Many sponsors have been with me 25 years — Ridgefield Hardware, Ridgefield Supply, Paris Salon,” she said.

Basket

For most of those 25 years, Dee Strilowich worked with her partner in life and business, the late Joe Strilowich.

He did most of the unseen work. He was down in the basement — “the dungeon,” he called it — making up the welcome baskets the Dee would carry around the leave with homeowners. He manned the computer and kept track of the account and finances.

“Joe and I each put in a lot of time,” she said. “Our belief was: if you’re going to be an entrepreneur, do whatever it takes to be successful.”

That means being seen.

“I used to take my basket and march in the parade: ‘The Welcome Wagon honors our vets!’” she said. “I always had a table set up on Main Street for Summerfest. I didn’t do it this year, because I was retiring.”

But mostly, it’s knocking on doors.

Early on, after launching Personal Touch Welcome as their own business, “I did 80 visits in February with a broken leg,” Strilowich said. “I did 80 visits on crutches, while Joe drove around and carried the baskets.”

There’s also the task of finding new people to pay visits to.

“I start with the property transfers. I go to town hall,” she said, “...There’s also a ‘leads’ website that helps you with new move-in leads, and they charge a small fee.

“Probably 85 to 90 percent each month are new home buyers from out of town,” she said.

She also visit new renters, and people who moved in town.

“A lot of my visits are word of mouth. People call me. A neighbor will call me and say ‘Someone renting just moved down the street. I know they’d love your visit…’

“We pay attention to ‘for rent’ signs in front of houses. So when you don’t see a ‘for rent’ sign there you can go and knock on the door — renters love a visit.”

Chamber members

Another aspect of the business is recruiting sponsors — local businesses that will pay to have Personal Touch Welcome deliver their gift certificates, and tell their stories, to town newcomers.

“We’re been members of the Chamber of Commerce for 25 years,” she said.

Joe and Dee Strilowich were regulars at all chamber events.

“That’s how we got most of our sponsors — at ribbon cuttings and things like that,” she said.

How many businesses has she represented over 25 years?

“In the neighborhood of four-to-five hundred,” she said.

Remembering Joe

Joe died two years ago, when they were on a trip to New Orleans.

The night before had been wonderful.

“We were meandering around New Orleans, listening to jazz music, wandering the streets. It was awesome,” she said.

The next morning he had a heart attack in the hotel.

“He just sat down at a desk, put his glasses on, picked up his cell phone — I was standing behind him — slumped in his chair and was gone.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to have him die any other way,” she said.

“Joe, he was never the one to want credit. He was always behind the scenes and let me be out there doing all the mouthy stuff — I did all the talking, and he just quietly stood by,” she said.

“It was tough on the whole town when his obituary come out. The Chamber of Commerce set up a scholarship in his honor.

“He lived a good long life. He was 80 years old, got to see his granddaughter married that summer.”

Since Joe died in 2017, she took on his behind the scenes duties, and hired two greeters — but she still visits homes herself.

“I would say I put in 40 to 60 hours a week,” Strilowich said. “I’m at the computer a lot, and I’m out doing visits.”

For sale?

She hasn’t sold the business, but she might — if the right person came along. Her greeters would probably like to continue, if someone took over.

“I’m open to selling the business, but not if it’s going to turn into direct mail, or the internet with apps — that’s not good,” she said. “‘Personal Touch’ means home visits.”

The decision to retire wasn’t that hard.

“I feel like it’s time,” she said, sitting an outdoor table along Main Street, Tuesday, July 30. “Yesterday, I was 79. Today, Joe would have been 82. And tomorrow would have been our 59th wedding anniversary. We had a three-day celebration every year.”