Famous fruitcakes are a centerpiece of holiday tables
In 1914, Lee William McNutt won the affection of his future wife with a little help from Collin Street Bakery’s DeLuxe fruitcake. When the two were courting, they often snacked on the now famous cake while taking an afternoon drive. Neither could have guessed then that one day their favorite fruitcake would become the family business. Three decades later, in the mid-1940s, Lee bought the bakery in Corsicana, Texas (pop. 24,485), and his family began to introduce the company’s special fruit-and-nut-filled cakes to holiday tables around the world.
“There’s a lot of family tradition in fruitcake,” says Lee’s grandson, Bob McNutt, 49, the third generation to run the bakery. “I was raised with it, and it has become a family legacy. It’s the most widely sold cake in the history of the planet.”
In 2005, Collin Street Bakery sold almost 1 million DeLuxe fruitcakes, shipping them to 196 countries and generating $35 million in sales. All of the cakes are baked using the original recipe from German baker Gus Wiedmann, who founded the bakery with Corsicana businessman Tom McElwee in 1896.
Each cake is 80 percent fruit and nuts with no artificial ingredients. To ensure they have the most luscious fruit and best pecans, the company owns an organic pineapple and papaya farm in Costa Rica and the world’s largest pecan sheller in Corsicana. Cherries are bought from Oregon and Washington, and the golden raisins come from California.
“The DeLuxe is so good because they haven’t changed the format,” says Collin Street baker Pat Bourland. “A lot of fruitcakes are fruit or batter based, but we put in more nuts. What you put into it is what you get out of it, just like with everything you do.”
The 100,000-square-foot bakery on Seventh Avenue (formerly on Collin Street, where the business originated and got its name), operates quietly for nine months of the year, producing a variety of cookies, cakes, pies and the occasional fruitcake. But in October, November and December, the batter flies and the staff swells from 60 to 700 to produce 30,000 fruitcakes a day.
Bakers make cakes in three sizes: 2 pounds, 3 pounds and 5 pounds. The unbaked batter travels along three decorator lines where employees artfully arrange fruit and pecans by hand in concentric circles.
Dallas resident Joey Carter was one of several members of a business association who recently toured the bakery, observing first-hand how it operates. “We put hairnets on and made our own fruitcake,” Carter says. “But our pecan placement was not nearly as pretty as that of the professional decorators.”
After the cakes are baked and cooled, they are placed in the bakery’s signature holiday tin that has been used for more than 50 years.
“We estimate there are 14 to 16 million of these tins around the world,” says John Crawford, the bakery’s vice president of sales. “They’re tucked in cupboards and displayed in kitchens. (The tin) is such a part of us, and it’s immediately recognizable.”
Carter says DeLuxe fruitcakes are a Christmas tradition with his family, noting that he somehow manages to get one tin all to himself, possibly because he leaves his fork in the top for frequent nibbling.
“DeLuxe fruitcakes are synonymous with the holiday season,” he says. “Actually, my first fruitcake of the year is always on my birthday in October. My mom always sends me one.”
Even though DeLuxe fruitcakes are the centerpiece of holiday tables around the world, the fruitcake wasn’t always the signature product of Collin Street Bakery. While founding baker Wiedmann made fruitcakes, the business operated primarily as a bread bakery until Lee McNutt and his business partners bought the bakery in 1946, following the death of the company’s founders. About that time, a sharp rise in the number of large bread bakeries prompted Collin Street Bakery to turn its focus toward fruitcake and the mail order business.
“Baking more fruitcake required the family to buy different equipment,” says company spokesman Hayden Crawford. “It was a huge gamble.”
Over time, however, the risk proved profitable, due in no small part to the bakery’s success in developing its mail order business. In the early 1900s, John Ringling and his circus troupe traveled to Corsicana every year and were among the first customers to have DeLuxe fruitcakes shipped to family and friends around the world.
Bob McNutt says that for many years after his family bought the bakery, hundreds of phone books were used to create mailing lists. That was before his father, Lee William “Bill” McNutt Jr., who joined Collin Street in 1958, revolutionized the company’s mail order business. Bill served as company president from 1967 to 1998.
“My dad was one of the first people to be proactive in going to other mail order companies and exchanging lists,” Bob McNutt says. “He was a catalyst in building information that has allowed direct marketing and the mail order business to be where they are today.”
Though Bill McNutt died in September, his work in the field of international direct mail marketing took DeLuxe fruitcakes to the far corners of the world. According to Crawford, the company once had a runner deliver a fruitcake to a customer on safari in Africa; another customer found a DeLuxe fruitcake tin in her aunt’s house in the Australian Outback. On a trip to the Bahamas, Bill McNutt spotted a tin in the refrigerator of a local artist.
Celebrities dig into the fruitcake, too. Some of Collin Street Bakery’s famous customers include Vanna White from TV’s Wheel of Fortune, former Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan, and country music star Lyle Lovett. Many companies also purchase the DeLuxe for corporate gifts, including the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, still a customer after all these years.
“DeLuxe is to fruitcake what Dom Perignon is to wine,” says Bob McNutt. “Our philosophy is you can buy the finest (fruitcake) in the world for under $25.”
Collin Street’s baked goods can be purchased by mail order, at the main bakery at 401 West Seventh Avenue in Corsicana, or at a new location just off Interstate 45 in Corsicana. The primary downtown location continues to offer customers 10-cent coffee and a variety of goodies seven days a week.
“It’s nice to be a lifelong customer of a company I feel good about,” says Jolly Brown of Tiburon, Calif. “I usually buy three to five (fruitcakes) during the holiday months, and I just can’t imagine the holidays without two big slices of fruitcake and a glass of cold milk.”
Visit www.collinstreet.com to learn more.