The World Is Their Fruitcake

It's 10:30 a.m. on a late November day, and Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Tex., is buzzing. In the lobby, about 10 people wait in line to place cake orders. Nearby, about 120 women packed into a few hundred square feet place cherries, pineapples, and pecans on top of the hundreds of cakes rolling off a conveyor belt. On the second floor, 40 operators handle a flood of calls. In all, some 15,000 orders will pour in today.

So, what cake whips up such euphoria at this time of year? Fruitcake, of course--that holiday confection that everybody loves to hate. 'Tis the season of fruitcake frenzy, and the Collin Street Bakery is in the thick of it. The firm, which will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 1996, is the largest fruitcake mail-order emporium in the world. This year, closely held Collin Street will rack up sales of $32 million, churn out some 33,000 fruitcakes each day in the 12-week stretch before Christmas, and ship more than 1.5 million of the nut-packed desserts around the world.

RUM DEAL. That's enough fruitcake, maybe, to challenge the Fruitcake Theory. Popularized by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin, it says there is really only one fruitcake in the world, which is passed around from family to family each Christmas. Trillin says he doesn't hate fruitcake--"I just don't eat it." I guess I should fess up: I'm no fruitcake fan myself. For one thing, I'm suspicious of those green and red bits. Also, every Christmas for as long as I can remember, my mother's aunt baked our family a fruitcake. Hard as a rock, its only saving grace was the healthy dose of rum poured into the mix.

Yet fruitcakes are serious business in this Texas town. Although 95% of Collin Street's business is by mail, CEO L. William McNutt Jr. says about 250,000 people a year visit the bakery, where coffee costs a dime and samples are free. Orders pour in from around the world, sometimes addressed simply to "Fruitcake, Tex." The 400,000 mail- order customers include everyone from Princess Caroline of Monaco to comedian Dom DeLuise.

Founded in 1896 by German baker August Weidmann and Corsicana entrepreneur W. Tom McElwee, the bakery stumbled into mail order when John Ringling and his famous circus troupe visited the town. Ringling requested that cakes be sent to fans and family around the world. Later, in 1946, Bill McNutt's father purchased the bakery and expanded the business.

What is it about the Collin Street fruitcake that invokes such loyalty? McNutt attributes it to 11 "quality" ingredients. To ensure supply and quality, the company has its own pineapple plantation in Costa Rica and its own pecan-shelling plant in Corsicana. "There's no big secret," says McNutt.

Maybe. But the trick is to put those ingredients together in the right proportions--a skill that's surely eluded many fruitcake makers, like my aunt. She passed away last March and will be dearly missed this Christmas. Not to worry about the fruitcake, though: I'm bringing one home from Corsicana.

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