If fruitcake has an arena, this is it: a narrow walkway that winds around the industrial kitchen at Southern Supreme and is separated from oversized ovens and mixers by a glass wall. Behind the partition, workers adorn brick-shaped cakes with candied bits of red and green fruit. In front of the glass, a group of retirees looks on.
"Here's Berta Lou," a guide exclaims through a microphone headset, introducing Southern Supreme's owner.
The crowd lights up. A woman extends her arms toward the baker, whispering, "I love your cakes."
The most loathed holiday dessert has a dedicated fan base in Berta Lou Scott, who started her business nearly 30 years ago in the unincorporated community of Bear Creek in Chatham County.
A signpost south of Siler City indicates the factory's whereabouts: "Fruitcake, 6-1/2 miles." After traveling the rural, two-lane road that takes me there, it's obvious that more than a few folks have followed those directions. A gravel parking area overflows with cars; buses from several retirement communities and churches have a separate lot.
In less than 30 minutes, three tours make their way around the kitchen. Scott is whisked away to the Southern Supreme showroom, where she's asked to sign copies of her book, Reflections & Recipes. It tells the story of her childhood, centered just a few feet from the storefront.
"We didn't get very far, did we?" she asks. But figuratively she has. In its busiest season—October through December—Scott's company bakes approximately 3,500 pounds of cake a day, which is shipped throughout the country and sold in Triangle-area stores such as A Southern Season, Whole Foods Market and Fresh Market. Southern Supreme also manufactures other products including chocolate clusters and truffles, spiced nuts, peanut brittle and cheese florets (a dainty take on the traditional cheese straw or biscuit).
As Scott details in her book, she grew up with the dense holiday treat, traveling each year with her family to Siler City before Christmas to gather supplies. "Beane's Grocery Store was the place," she writes. "We would buy all the ingredients for our fruitcakes and candy."
But Scott didn't expect to make the cake her career. Instead, she worked at the Kellwood Hosiery Mill in Siler City. Later, she attended beauty school in Greensboro and opened a salon in the garage of her Bear Creek home, where she served fruitcake to customers each winter. Based on her customers' accolades for the cake, Scott kidded her husband, Hoyt, about scrapping hairdos for a career in baking. When Hoyt lost his job manufacturing wood-burning stoves, Scott says, "We quit laughing about it."
Scott used a pizza oven to bake the fruitcakes in her daughter Belinda's garage. In 1985, Southern Supreme officially launched. "The family kind of grinned about it and I don't know what the neighbors said," Scott recalls of the decision to build a business out of the oft-ridiculed cakes. But she received a lot of support from family and friends, in particular her sister, Ethelda Stumpf, who helped perfect their mother's recipe.
Unlike many fruitcakes, Southern Supreme's doesn't contain any candied fruit inside (candied cherries and pineapple do dress the top). Instead, it features pineapple, dates and raisins, in addition to a heavy load of walnuts and pecans. "I don't want you to taste a cherry when you taste the cake," says Scott. "I want you to taste the nuts."
To avoid a defined crust, the crumb is turned three times during the baking process. It's then rolled into balls and weighed before being inserted into a hydraulic press that ejects the desired brick- and round-shaped cakes, which are coated in a sugar-and-water glaze.
The Scotts built the current Southern Supreme factory across the road from their home in 1990. The company now employees 130 people during peak season (15-20 people year-round), and the building has undergone eight additions. Most of Scott's family members, including in-laws, work at the factory, which houses a sample room to taste products and a showroom in which to buy them. In the latter, a wood display case fills a wall with fruitcakes wrapped in golden and beige boxes and an array of holiday tins.
"Ninety percent of the product you see here is made here," says Hoyt Scott, who estimates that customers venture to Southern Supreme primarily from within a three-state radius.
A lot of goods are sold to people off-site. Visible from the office entryway is a row of computers where hunched-over workers take phone orders.
But Scott says a goal is to draw people to the Bear Creek community. "I want people to come here," she says.
They do, by the busload, in fact. And so it is that the sticky holiday cake, often said to be destined for the trash, has become something of a destination itself.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Love supreme."