Going Nuts for Fruitcake in Beatrice
The town that saved its factory now sends a million pounds of cakes to fans across North America every year.
With a variety of delectable bakery items, the bright-colored jewel in Beatrice Bakery Company’s crown of products is Grandma’s Original Fruit & Nut Cake.
Photographs by Steve and Bobbi Olson
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)
THEY LINE UP TOGETHER with uniforms on, ready for the warm-up exercises. The leader stands before the squad, poised to direct their movements. And then they he team follows the leader. Arms twirl this way, then that way. They reach up. Then down. Twist to the right Stretch to the left Bend forward, pull back. Dozens of hands shake loose the stiffness from the day.
No, it’s not the Big Red Comhuskers doing their gridiron calisthenics, but this is one dedicated team. They are the ladies of the Beatrice Bakery, and it’s time to make the fruitcakes, about 1 million pounds in less than a year. So, just before the morning work begins, nearly 30 women put on their white aprons and smocks and hair nets and loosen up. It is the Beatrice ritual that rivals tai chi on a Beijing square.
Lynn Stevens has been helping bake the fruitcakes for 26 years now, and it’s estimated that she’s made about 20 mil lion pounds of them in her career here. The 64-year-old Beatrice resident still insists she has an easy job, but she does welcome the 8 a.m. workout, when they shake shake shake before they bake bake bake.
“We get our aprons and get ready;” Stevens said. “We stretch our arms, our backs. Then roll our shoulders and wrists.”
After their morning stretch, Team Fruitcake springs into action. It’s a revolving assembly line worthy of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory. One worker secretly measures the top-secret formula for the mixing man, who stirs and stirs until the mix is just right. With the strength of a mighty blacksmith, he hoists the vat and pours its 600-pound batch into a hefty machine called a dough trough.
“Our mixing man, he’s nutty as a fruitcake;’ chuckles Greg Leech, who is the company’s president and CEO.
Leech, who turns 55 in November, has been with the company for 31 years, and he’s heard all of the fruitcake jokes, many of them from his new mixing man.
Larry Hibbert started the heavy lifting at the bakery a few months ago, but for years, he tossed the light fruitcake barbs at Leech when they watched their kids playing sports together in Beatrice.
“Now he works here, so now he doesn’t tease me anymore,” Leech said, laughing. Leech is one of six local investors who bought the company and saved it from being closed down in 2001.
When Hibbert puts the batter up, it kicks off a chain reaction by the line workers. First, the batter is moved from the dough trough into the depositor, where the machine sorts the batter into 1- and 2-pound pans. A worker then places the pans on a scale and either subtracts or adds batter to get the right weight.
After one worker smoothes the creamy batter, another group gets the delicate task of topping off the cakes with walnuts from California, Georgia pecans and cherries from Oregon. Still other workers hand-sort the nuts – about 3,000 pounds a week – to make sure shells are out of the mix.
After all the fixin’s are fixed, it’s time for Stevens to get cooking. The cakes are wheeled over to her on seven carts, with 20 pans to a cart. She puts each cake pan into the oven.
After the cakes are baked at about 300 degrees for around two hours, they’re placed back on the carts and cooled overnight. In the morning, they are packaged for delivery to the customers all over North America. The University of Nebraska tests the shelf life for Beatrice, and the cakes are counted on to keep for a year.
Beatrice’s biggest seller is its Grandma’s Original Fruit & Nut Cake, which contains a healthy dose of bourbon, rum and brandy. Beatrice uses about 5,000 gallons of booze in its fruit and nut and liqueur cakes each year, which makes it the champion consumer of liquor in the state.
Leech won’t reveal the secret behind the taste of the Beatrice fruitcakes, but he does say that the slow baking, and then the cooling through the air-conditioned room keeps their cakes moister than those infamous Christmas gifts everyone dreads getting in the mail. Rebecca Brown, who is director of sales and marketing, often deals with fruitcake requests from all over the United States, as well as Canada and Puerto Rico, and she has a theory why people go nuts for these high-end cakes. Beatrice doesn’t throw in what Brown terms as “foreign objects:’ like citron and orange peels. “One will not find that chewy texture and bitter aftertaste in our fruitcakes,” she said.
“Even though people say fruitcake lasts forever, the fruitcake that we make, people actually consume,” Brown added. “It’s not a doorstop:’
THE DOORS ALMOST CLOSED for good on Beatrice workers in 2001. Sara Lee had purchased Beatrice Bakery’s parent company, EarthGrains Baking Company, and decided it would shut down the Beatrice plant. Perhaps the big-time company decided there was a lot more bread to be made by baking bread instead. Fruitcakes, no matter how tasty, apparently didn’t cut it for this giant corporation. It was taking its business elsewhere, and the end was near. That was something veteran workers like Stevens couldn’t begin to stomach.
“I left the room and had a good cry,” Stevens said. “It was very sad. My heart dropped.”
Beatrice has hung together as a tight-knit community since settlers first arrived just 23 miles north of the Kansas border in 1859. The Gage County city of just under 13,000 is proud of the name, Bee-AT-russ, even though the pronunciation got mangled when the local creamery moved to Chicago a century ago and became food processing giant Beatrice Food. The folks are proud of their downtown, and shopping mall, and their fruitcakes. So when Sara Lee wanted to shut the ovens, it fired up local residents.
The company was going through its normal three-month shutdown during the winter, and Sara Lee gave Leech time to save the fruitcakes. Six investors came together and bought the business, and the cakes were cooking again after just a six-month stoppage. One of the buyers was Leech, who was vice president at the time. He said it wasn’t about investing in a good business; it was about investing in 40 good people and saving their jobs.
These days, the company looks to open up even more revenue streams after it was a big hit last December on the Food Network’s Unwrapped. The bakery’s appearance on the cooking show has stirred more walk-in interest, including a guy traveling from Las Vegas who stopped by for some fruitcakes. The bakery has sold the products to military commissaries overseas, and each December, the company donates fruitcakes to help fuel sailors aboard the submarine, the USS Nebraska. The bakery now has intensified the mission. They’re even on guard for al-Qaeda fruitcakes.
Debra Storck makes her 35-mile drive up from Marysville, Kan., with a true-grit determination to keep the plant safe, clean and secure as she heads up quality-control at the bakery. The bakery even sent her to Harrisburg, Penn., where she was trained as a food defense coordinator by the American Institute of Baking.
“Food defense is important;’ said the 47-year-old Storck.
“We’re not only concerned about food safety, which is the unintentional contamination of your food, we’re also concerned about people trying to intentionally sabotage the food chain.”
Nebraska Life’s intrepid reporter got a taste of the security measures before he was taken on the tour. I had to sign off on a series of regulations that made me feel I was about to enter a top-secret Pentagon zone. Then when I put on my hairnet, and squeezed into a smock, I felt like Dom DeLuise in one of his portly chef comedy skits.
So watch out Osama. Don’t mess with the Beatrice fruitcakes.
Storck will remain vigilant while the bakery each year goes through 120,000 pounds of raisins, 75,000 pounds of pecans, 100,000 pounds of walnuts, 135,000 pounds of pineapple, 170,000 pounds of cherries and 85,000 pounds of whole eggs bought from Nebraska farmers.
Those ingredients keep fruitcake fans procuring Beatrice Bakery’s products. One of the most loyal buyers is a woman in her 80s from St. Louis, who happens to be a relative of the company’s founders. The Lantz Brothers were the two German immigrants who used their grandma’s recipe to create fruitcakes in their St. Louis bakery. They moved the bakery to Beatrice in 1964 before selling the company and the secret recipe.
There was a famed Nebraskan who never placed an order no matter how hard his mother, or the bakery, tried to win him over. Norfolk native and late-night talk show king Johnny Carson made the fruitcake infamous with his constant gags about them. But his mother was said to have loved the Beatrice cakes, so the bakery kept trying to sweet-talk Mr. Carson.
“Johnny always made fun of them,” Leech said. “So we would write him and send him a fruitcake and try to get on the show, or try to get him to say something good about fruitcakes. But he never did.”
Johnny has moved onto that big couch in the sky, but the Beatrice fruitcakes offer their own slice of heaven back in Nebraska.
One goal Leech has for the company is to add more products like their new quick breads and desert liqueur cakes that might keep the plant open all year. Stevens said some of the veteran employees welcome getting the winter months off to catch up on personal projects, but she adds that they’d all still be hungry for year-round work. The break does allow this talented baker a chance to prepare meals in her own kitchen. But when she is in the fruitcake zone at the bakery, her husband, Daylon, is on his own for cooking supper unless one of their three daughters comes home for a visit.
“If he’s hungry, he can fix it himself,” she said.
Besides, there’s always plenty of fruitcake to hold him over.
(This story originally appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Nebraska Life Magazine)