Selling fruitcake is a tough gig.
The sales window is short – primarily, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And fruitcake is one of the most scorned foods in existence. Uneaten bricks are flung into the air at the annual Great Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Co. And it is the butt of many jokes, like this one from comedian Jim Gaffigan: “Fruit, good. Cake, great. Fruitcake, nasty crap.”
That’s what makes the success of a fruitcake business started by a Chatham County hairdresser all the more astounding.
Berta Lou Scott, 78, turned her tweaked family recipe into a thriving enterprise called Southern Supreme that sells about $2 million worth of fruitcake a year. That doesn’t include what the family-owned company collects for selling other products, including cheese straws, candied nuts and brittles, jams, jellies and more. And this time of year, Southern Supreme transforms the rural crossroads of Bear Creek, about an hour west of Raleigh, into a culinary landmark.
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On a recent morning, the parking lot outside the company’s 40,000-square-foot facility is packed with church vans, Buicks and Cadillacs. Outside, the air is redolent with the scent of sugar and roasted nuts.
Inside, people are lined up to taste fruitcake, holiday cranberry relish and garlic dill pickles. One of two guides is giving a peek at the company’s four kitchens, where ladies in hairnets and white aprons make cheese “florets,” chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and creamy pecan pralines by hand. And inside the showroom, customers fill small shopping carts with fruitcake, specialty coffees and a turtle-like candy called “Bear Creek Critters.”
“We really thought we’d be a mail-order business,” says Randy Scott, Berta’s youngest son and the company president. “We have become a destination trip.”
From holiday gift to must-buy
Southern Supreme started almost 30 years ago. In the early 1980s, Berta Scott was taking care of her four children and cutting hair in a salon in her Bear Creek garage. Her husband’s wood-heater business was struggling as alternatives got more affordable.
The Scotts were looking for a business opportunity.
For years, Scott had tinkered with her mother’s fruitcake cookie recipe, turning the bar cookie into a cake and adjusting the ingredients. Her winning combination: no candied citrus peel, less fruit, more nuts. During the holidays, she would give them away to loyal customers and friends who raved about her culinary creation.
Her fruitcake is a world apart from the rainbow-studded blocks sold at most grocery stores. That familiar, maligned fruitcake is a dry cake, where the sweetness of the candied fruit battles with the lingering bitterness of the citrus peel and offers only the occasional reprieve with a nugget of walnut or pecan. One bite leaves your tongue begging for the unpleasant taste to cease and desist.
In comparison, Scott’s glazed dense date cake is studded with nuts and a random cherry or pineapple chunk. It goes down so easy that before you know it, you’ve eaten a half-pound.
Customers who loved Scott’s fruitcakes encouraged her to sell them. When she broached the topic with her husband, Hoyt responded: “Whatever you want to do.”
With the help of six relatives, the couple launched the business, baking the cakes in a makeshift kitchen in a daughter’s garage and selling them off the dining room table. That first season, they sold 2,000 pounds, including many at a Raleigh holiday market.
‘If we get them to taste it ’
At that show and every show where the Scott family has peddled their confection since, Scott gets the same initial reaction from customers.
“They say, ‘I don’t like fruitcake,’ ” she says. “But if we get them to taste it, we get a customer.”
Southern Supreme fruitcakes range from a half-pound slab costing $7.15 to 41/2 pounds for $44.95. Randy Scott says their second and third best sellers are fruitcake cookies and their version of cheese straws called “cheese florets.”
One bite of fruitcake was all it took to make a fan of Jeannine Rowell of Charlotte, who tried at a sample at the Southern Christmas Show in Charlotte – the main way the Scotts promote their product.
“It was wonderful – the best fruitcake I ever ate,” says Rowell, who filled her cart at Southern Supreme’s showroom with one-pound cakes.
Ann Wilson of Eden had a similar experience at a holiday market in Greensboro more than a decade ago. Ever since, she has been buying Scott’s fruitcakes for friends and relatives. Her sister expects not only a one-pound fruit cake for Christmas but also one for her birthday, she explains.
“This is the only fruitcake that we eat in our family,” Wilson says.
This year, the Scott family expects to sell about 200,000 pounds of fruitcake. Their business and facility has grown piecemeal over the years. The building they now occupy, across from Berta and Hoyt Scott’s home, has had eight additions since 1990. Son Randy helped design the fruitcake molding machine now in use. Several employees are Berta Scott’s former salon clients.
During its peak season from October until year’s end, the company employs more than a dozen Scott family members.
“The fruitcake wrapping line is almost all Scotts,” Randy Scott says.
Plus, the original eight family members who started the business -- Berta, Hoyt, one of Berta’s sisters, two of their children and three of their children’s spouses -- were eventually able to leave their careers as truckers, hairdressers and human resources executives to work fulltime at Southern Supreme. Randy Scott was the last holdout, keeping his job at a sawmill until the mid-2000s.
Berta Scott can be found most days working the showroom floor, signing copies of her self-published cookbook -- part biography, part company history, part family photo album, with recipes, of course.
“Nobody ever believed we’d be able to quit our jobs,” she says.
Quite a blessing from such a hard sell.
To see a printable version of the recipe, click on the name below: