Tonight Show host Johnny Carson famously said “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other, year after year.”
The Beatrice Bakery Company is out to prove that isn’t the case.
“I don’t know if he knew this or not, but his mom bought a fruitcake from us every year and ate it,” former CEO Greg Leech said about the Nebraska native. “We tried to get on the show. We would send him cakes and stuff, but I think he didn’t want to lose all his fruitcake jokes.”
With TV appearances on The View, Food Network’s Unwrapped and the Travel Channel, Beatrice Bakery’s Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cakes has been heralded one of the best fruitcakes in the nation.
“Most people said ‘it was good enough for me if it was on that show,’” Leech said. “The last several years we’ve been on QVC. They sold 11,000 cakes in 8 minutes. It’s just amazing what people do.”
Leech said the bakery makes about 750,000 pounds of cake a year.
“Basically, we have a mixing room upstairs,” Leech said. “It’s a big mixer that can do up to a 600 pound batch at a time. So we have one person there that scales everything for the next day, and then the other person just has to reach over and start mixing product.”
Leech said the fruitcake then goes into a dough trough.
“The mixer will turn almost upside down, but not quite,” Leech said, “and we’ll empty it into this dough trough and wheel it out into our makeup room. Our makeup room is where we put the dough trough up on a big hoist, and we put all the cakes into what we call a depositor. We have somebody feeding the depositor with a round pan, and it deposits approximately the amount of mixed ingredients into that pan.”
Leech said after that the fruitcake gets scaled to make sure it is the correct size, then the top is smoothed and cherries, almonds and pecans are added on top. The fruitcakes are then baked and cooled for 24 hours before being packaged and sold.
“We’re not very automized,” Leech said. “It’s all hand-done like your grandma would do, or your mother would do.”
Leech said the bakery still follows the original recipe that its had since 1964, when they were called Wilke Baking Company.
“In the late 1920s, this was a bread and bun manufacturing facility, and they had bread routes that went out to the grocery store chains,” Leech said. “Then in the late 60s we found out about some German people that had a fruitcake company in St. Louis, Missouri. They were wanting to retire, and they wanted a Midwest baking company that could produce their cake. At that time the competition was getting really tough for our bread and bun facility. So we needed to have something else to produce and sell, and after some negotiations with them, they decided we were the best plant and best place.”
Leech said after a while they quit making bread and solely produced fruitcake for several years
“So we were always known for Grandma’s Fruitcake, and that was our main seller and it continues to be today,” Leech said. “We expanded our operation to make other specialty cakes, so we could get income coming in through the whole year instead of just a Christmas time. But when I say that the people that know us hear Beatrice Bakery Company, the first thing that comes to mind is fruitcake every time.”
Leech said in addition to the fruitcake, their apple streusel, chocolate rum, amaretto and pineapple macadamia nut cakes are popular, and more options are coming.
“We’ve got some things in the works, but we kind of want to go out and test it with some of our customers and see what they think of it first before we do anything like that,” Leech said. “But we don’t have anything specific right now.”
Feb. 4 was the bakery’s first day of production after the holiday season.
“We’ll go to about Dec. 15-20, then we’ll lay the production people off, and they’re off about five or six weeks,” Leech said. “I’d say 90 percent of them enjoy the time off, especially last year we worked so much overtime. And it’s during Christmas, New Year’s.”
Leech urged people still wary of fruitcakes to give Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake a try.
“We’ve been to a lot of shows, been to the state fair to hand out samples, and people day ‘oh, I don’t like fruitcake.’ I say ‘just try it, and if you don’t like, spit it out or throw it away or whatever.’ And they always come back and say ‘boy was I wrong. I didn’t realize fruitcake tasted this well,’” Leech said.
“We just grow every year. So far we’ve been really lucky, and we just want to get the word out to more people.”