The monks at Assumption Abbey in Ava, Mo., were making concrete blocks when Father Cyprian Harrison joined the order in 1965. As demand for the blocks waned, the order explored other options to support the men who call the cloistered monastery home.
“After a lot of inner reflection, we decided [to get out of the concrete block business and start making] fruitcake. We only had to change the recipe a little,” quips Harrison.
The monks tested six recipes and settled on a traditional dark, rich fruitcake made with cherries, raisins, pineapple and rum. Today, the brothers work part time in the bakery and every year make about 6,000 pounds of fruitcake, which they ship around the world.
Monasteries are already known for producing quality food products like honey, fudge, preserves and, of course, world famous Trappist beers. But several monasteries have discovered that fruitcake is also big business.
“Traditionally, grandmothers made fruitcake, but it became commercialized and lost its personal touch,” says Brother Paul Quenon of the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Ky.
The monks at this abbey have been making fruitcakes since the 1950s, and now they financially depend on the annual sales of about 90,000 pounds of fruitcake.
The popularity of the monastery-made fruitcakes is both a blessing and a burden. Marketing the confections requires monasteries to create websites and establish email addresses and toll-free telephone numbers. The monks must balance their vows of solitude and contemplation with the need to generate revenue.
“The ideal of our order is to live by the work of our own hands, and that is something we’ve been able to achieve,” explains Quenon.
The production is done in alignment with their values: The abbey’s bakery eschews automation, and the bourbon-based fruitcakes are made almost entirely in silence. The monks work just four hours per day in order to maintain their commitment to prayer, meditation and contemplation.
Father Richard Layton of Trappist Abbey in Carlton, Ore., says monks at the 17 monasteries across the U.S. embrace “oddball industries” like making fruitcakes because the work requires little involvement with the outside world.
“We don’t want to be a mega-industry,” Layton says. “We’re just three or four monks standing around a table pouring batter into pans.”
Trappist Abbey produces 40,000 pounds of fruitcake per year — about the same amount that the renowned fruitcake maker Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas, produces in one week.
Although monastic operations are small in comparison, the fruitcake has a lot of fans.
Trappist Abbey sells its cakes through its website and several retailers, including Norm Thompson; Williams-Sonoma features Assumption Abbey fruitcakes in its catalog; and the Abbey at Gethsemani earned a nod as “best overall” fruitcake by The Wall Street Journal.
“People who don’t like fruitcake like our fruitcake,” says Quenon.
“The fact that it’s a tradition, even if it’s controversial, gives us an assured market,” adds Harrison.
In fact, the U.S. military wanted to partner with Assumption Abbey to produce 1 million fruitcakes per year to distribute during the holidays.
“We’re not like a regular business with a goal to keep growing production,” Harrison says. “Even if we wanted to, we don’t have the monk power to make that many cakes!”
While the monks aren’t trying to dominate the fruitcake market, there might be a little competition between monasteries.
Not long after Assumption Abbey started producing fruitcakes, Harrison visited the Abbey of Gethsemani and attended a community meeting where the abbot asked Gethsemani’s baker which fruitcake was better.
“He stumbled for a minute and then said that both were very different kinds of cakes and it was impossible to compare,” Harrison recalls. “There’s enough of a demand that there’s no business competition … but there is a little brotherly competition.”
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina-based freelancer. Follow her on Twitter @helmerjodi.