BEATRICE — This year, Beatrice Bakery is celebrating an impressive milestone.
Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake — the bakery’s top seller — has been around for 100 years.
The recipe didn’t originate at Beatrice Bakery, but the company is keeping the tradition alive with thousands of fruitcakes produced each year, making their way to holiday celebrations around the country.
It was 1917 when the Lantz brothers immigrated to the United States and settled in St. Louis, where they opened a bakery. Their grandmother’s fruitcake recipe proved to be a hit with area residents, as well as a treasured family heirloom. When the brothers retired from the baking business, they needed to find a bakery that would carry on the tradition.
Beatrice Bakery bought the recipe in the 1960s with a promise to never change it and, since 1963, the same ingredients have gone into the fruitcake, using the same cooking techniques and even some of the same equipment.
Keeping the recipe the same was not only a promise, but one of the reasons Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake has such staying power.
Beatrice Bakery President Greg Leech said the company has seen an uptick in online sales after being featured on the QVC television network, and more people have been walking into the store in the basement of the factory.
“We're just known for our fruitcake,” Leech said. “That's the main reason they come in. Then they see our other products. The main reason they come in is to buy fruitcake.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the retail space was bustling with out-of-towners. Some of the shoppers had seen a feature story in the news and came all the way from across the state, while others even crossed state lines to get to the bakery.
Inside the shop, near a tree decorated with small, plastic fruitcakes, a group of four women from Lincoln were perusing the display. They carpooled to Beatrice to pick out the perfect fruitcake.
Justine Lovell saw Grandma’s Fruit and Nut Cake on the local news and the Food Network show “Unwrapped” a few years ago and got a group together to come down to get some.
“I'm just excited to come here,” Lovell said. “I just got the regular one, but I got one chocolate for myself.”
Lovell’s friend, Ruthann Ronne, bought a peach-flavored cake and an Irish crème one, but said she had family reasons for not buying a traditional fruitcake.
“I like it, but my family doesn't,” Ronne said. “So that means I'd eat the whole thing.”
Lovell scoffed, sitting down on a bench in the shop to jokingly chide her friend.
“If you go to a hamburger place, you should get hamburger,” Lovell said. “If you go to a fish place, you should get fish. If you go to a steak place, you should get steak. So, if you come here, you should get regular fruitcake. That's my theory.”
Jonathan Hnosko was helping the group with their shopping, though his job is typically done behind the scenes. He’s Beatrice Bakery’s food safety and quality control officer, meaning he’s usually working on labeling, nutrition and safety.
This is only Hnosko’s second month at the bakery, but he’s learned to love the famous holiday treat.
“You know, I had tried fruitcake and it wasn't really something that was a favorite of mine until I had a chance to try this,” he said. “And this really does taste different from what most people would say is a stereotypical fruitcake.”
Over the course of the year, the bakery ships about 700,000 pounds of cakes out the door. The business uses about 35,000 pounds of walnuts, 50,000 pounds of pecans and 140,000 pounds of cherries and pineapple, Leech said.
Walk-in traffic has nearly tripled in the last few years, he said. Usually, traffic increases in the months leading up to Christmas, but this year, the bakery was also packed during the eclipse in August.
“We had one guy who stayed out in a camper out at the fairgrounds,” Leech said. “He came in on the morning of the eclipse and bought some fruitcakes. And he walked, clear from the fairgrounds. They started eating them, they saw the eclipse and then they drove here afterward and bought some more.”
Fruitcake has been Leech’s whole life. Next month, he’ll have been with Beatrice Bakery for 39 years. Then, in May, he’s planning to retire from the business to spend more time with his family.
“I have wonderful people that work for me and the public's been wonderful,” Leech said. “I'm going to miss that part. I'm not going to miss the rush from October through December.”