Above: Claxton fruit cake is a holiday staple for many families. Photos courtesy of Claxton Bakery, Inc.
Make no bones about it; Dale Parker respects the fruit cake.
Yes, TV host Johnny Carson famously joked that there was only one fruit cake that was passed around endlessly. Sure, you can find internet videos of people flinging, stomping on or otherwise laying waste to the holiday…um…favorite?
But also know this; the candied-and-dried fruit and nut creation has been a British royal family favorite for centuries, served at weddings and other celebrations. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg of many satisfied customers.
That same tradition and enthusiasm shine through when you speak with the 65-year-old Parker, part of the family that owns the Claxton Bakery, Inc. in tiny Claxton, Georgia west of Savannah. They’ve been turning out the iconic fruit cake of the same name for decades.
A family business
As he put it, “I grew up in a family business where fruit cake is the product. We have enjoyed a long, rich tradition of making the world’s finest cakes, and I don’t really believe you can truly succeed in business without a high level of passion for the product you’re producing.”
As for Carson and those internet videos he said flatly, “we’re really too busy to make jokes.”
Extremely busy in fact. The operation turns out 5 million pounds of the specialty desert annually, 86 thousand pounds in an average day. The cakes are most prevalent in the Southeast and Atlanta Seaboard states, but they’re shipped to all 50 states — in fact all over the world.
It’s also a family affair. Parker runs the operation along with two brothers; a sister is part-owner as well. Parker’s two sons are involved, as well as other relatives of various description. A year-round staff of 10 or 12 swells to more than 100 during the busy holiday season with good reason. Ninety-five percent of their sales come during October, November and December.
Parker is proud to note that some employees have been around for more than 50 years. He’s also frank. “A family business can be a struggle, but we’ve made it work because we put the focus on the customer. People ask us who our famous customers are; we consider every customer to be famous.”
History of Claxton fruit cake
The family connection dates back to 1945, when Albert Parker (Dale’s father) purchased the bakery from Italian immigrant and pastry maker Saviano Tos. Tos had wended his way down from New York, settling in Claxton in 1910 and spending decades turning out bread, baked goods and particularly specialty fruit cake.
Not long after taking over, Parker looked at how traditional bakery items were appearing in other places—bread in grocery stores and ice cream in service stations, to name a few examples. So he took a leap of faith and decided to specialize in fruit cakes. He developed his own recipe and a Georgia tradition was born.
That first year, the senior Parker baked 45,000 pounds of fruit cake. This year, said his son, they expect that number to be five million. He said their gourmet approach to the treat has served them — and their customers — well.
What makes it special
“When people buy our product, they’re going to get over 70 percent by weight fruits and nuts,” Parker said. “A run-of-the-mill fruit cake is 30 or 40 percent. In a supermarket or convenience store, you’ll typically see a pound cake with a few fruits and nuts sprinkled on top of it.”
The gourmet concoction’s ingredients are gathered from far and wide. Candied cherries from the Pacific Northwest and Michigan. Natural and golden raisins from California’s San Joaquin Valley. Pineapples from Mexican plantations. And don’t forget good old Georgia pecans, along with almonds and other nutty goodies.
Parker said they start with pound cake, “Just enough to hold the fruit and nuts together,” in his words. Prepackaged ingredients are folded in (including those somewhat-mysterious red and green candied pineapples) and it’s all whirled around in what looks like a cement mixer. Then it’s into the ovens. After a cooling process, the 11-pound loaves are cut into one, two and three-pound increments.
The cakes do enjoy considerable popularity with older adults, Parker said, but he’s not sure why. Maybe it’s a taste acquired with time — that certainly does happen. “When I was growing up, I wouldn’t eat asparagus and now I can’t get enough of it,” he noted.
He said that they’ve experimented with chocolate-covered fruit cake and individually wrapped slices, looking to expand their base and appeal to the younger set. Energy-boost-seekers are apparently already sold on the treat.
A solid tradition
“There was a book written by a guy named Ed Garvey, called ‘Appalachian Hiker,’ Parker said. “He contacted our company and had us deliver fruit cake to him at several stops along his way. I’m told other trail hikers also take us along as an energy source.”
And that source will stay as is; don’t look for any experimentation with the treasured formula pioneered in the 1940s.
“We have made the same cake for many years,” he said. “We don’t change our recipe. In that, we’re kind of like Coke or any other iconic product. We feel it’s one reason our cakes have retained their popularity.”
Comic lines notwithstanding, Parker foresees a steady future. Long a mainstay in stores and supermarkets and a popular fundraising item for Citivan clubs and other service organizations, the dessert can now be found for sale on QVC and in Walmart stores in Canada under a French label. Sales are trending upward.
Parker plans to work a while longer and then pass the mantle on to his sons. And he has no regrets about spending virtually his entire adult life presiding over mixing, baking and shipping.
“My one regret,” he said, “is that I won’t get to work here another 45 years.”