Why would a small company looking to gain traction in the market choose America’s most unpopular Christmas gift as a product offering? Well, we didn’t really choose it, it kind of chose us.
When my husband Ryan and I had been married a couple years and had our first child, I quit working to become a full time mom and we moved to the Arabian Peninsula so Ryan could teach at the United Arab Emirates University in Al Ain, UAE. We loved it there, but if there was ever one time when we craved home, it was during Christmas. We’re from the Midwest, so during the Christmas season one can expect cold days, roaring fires and probably some snow. There is Christmas music blasting in the local stores and jolly decor galore. There are certain traditions most US families have that start the day after Thanksgiving. For our family, it meant venturing out into the woods in search of the perfect Christmas tree. As we got older and life got busier, my parents would pick a tree up at the local hardware store and we’d eventually get it home and drag it into the house, leaving pine needles scattered about. Now that I think about it, pine needles stuck in our cotton socks all Christmas season was also an unintended part of our family tradition. After momentary struggles trying to get the tree straight in the stand, it was time to get out the Christmas music, rip open copious packages of chocolate covered cherries or Andes Mints (for those sad few who never succumbed to enjoying chocolate covered cherries), and hang the ornaments. Outside it was cold enough to see your breath, and Christmas was in the air all around us.
Although there is a certain flavor of Christmas in the Middle East, it is quite different from the Midwest, as you can imagine. When I would go to the market in search of those traditional Christmas treats I would come up dry. Because of the European influence in many of the local grocery stores, one thing I noticed that was in heavy supply was, you guessed it… fruitcakes. But these fruitcakes weren’t like the fruitcakes I was familiar with growing up. No, lo and behold, they were full of actual fruit! Sure, there were some with green and red jellies and other foreign objects I’m sure, but most of them were full of beautiful spices, fruits and nuts; all items the Middle East is not lacking in. Go to any local market and you will find barrels brimming with every variety of nut, seed, dried fruit and aromatic spice you can imagine. The foodie in me was mesmerized by the variety and concept of this British treasure and I knew I must attempt it at home. In searching for a recipe, I explored the history of fruitcake and found what I had anticipated. It once really was just that, a cake made with a ton of fruit, and often preserved with a strong drink. I found a few to give a go that truly seemed closest to the oldest and most traditional methods, and went for it. From those traditional recipes, I honestly don’t remember being disappointed in any of them. It’s hard to go wrong with lots of fruit, nuts and a good liquor. I would bake them, pour a brandy or rum over them, wrap them and store them in the pantry. Every few days I would unwrap, soak the cloth in a little more liquor, wrap them back up and allow the fruitcake to age. This was the traditional preservation method and in the end they were nothing short of amazing.
When we moved back to the states, my husband was like, when are going to get the fruitcake going this Christmas? It was obvious that this tradition was going to stick. By that time, we already had wheels turning in our minds on how to fill the void of delicious date products in the US. Fast forward a few years later and we were in the thick of it and contemplating new products. Keep in mind, this was 13 years ago and it was slow going. People in the US weren’t really sure they liked dates. Unfortunately the date’s reputation had been tarnished by diced, sugared, canned varieties, bad branding and less than desirable high fiber breakfast cereals. We were out to change their minds with caramel-y date syrup and delicious date varieties no one knew existed, but we weren’t quite there yet. When the thought of developing a fruitcake for Date Lady crossed our minds, our initial thought was, “Nobody in the US likes fruitcake either, this seems like a natural parallel to our outlandish branding goals!” And to be honest, this was really the truth. We weren’t really ever out there with an exit strategy, looking to become huge with fast selling products so that we could sell out to a larger company. Really our goal was to share something we knew people would want to know about. Dates are amazing, trust us. AND, fruitcake used to be (and can still be) good. So we did it, and we sell them about as fast as we can make them, which is in small batches in our tiny little bakehouse next door to the Date Lady facility in Missouri.
Funny enough, not long after we started selling the fruitcakes, Adweek called me for an interview. Prior to having our first child I had been in the advertising industry, both at agencies and on the client side; getting mentioned in Adweek would have been huge. At that point however, my husband and I were doing Date Lady but most of my time was spent at home raising our kids. I was not at an agency but lo, in my own kitchen with toddlers napping or at my legs while conceptualizing that cake, and probably while talking to Adweek. The article was called, Why Fruitcake, the Maligned Holiday Treat, Is Finally Getting Some Respect. I knew other people would see the injustice of the fruitcake eventually, and we were happy to be part of it. Not long after that we won a gold sofi in the baked goods category from the Speciality Food Association which is like the Oscars of the food industry. When I realized the silver went to an Italian panettone, we were especially proud. We beat out the bakers from Italy; not a small feat. The funny thing is, there are a lot of people who are very disappointed when they get our fruitcake. We’ve read some scathing reviews over the past few years. Many of those seem to bring forth similarities in their list of disappointments that point to a common theme. They actually like fruitcake; the one that America has grown such a distaste for, that is. Oh well, you can’t please everyone.
So here we are at our favorite time of the year. By the end of October the emails start rolling in: “When are you going to start selling fruitcakes?” And in November our favorite repeat buyers get in touch, such as “Sue” who just sends emails sporadically with, “Dear Date Lady, Please send me five more fruitcakes. Thank you, Sue” And even though we much prefer website orders, we do it, for Sue we’ll do it every time.
To sum it up, the fruitcakes captured us in the British section of the market on the Arabian peninsula, and we fell head over heels. And we just couldn’t resist the challenge to attempt another comeback for a long lost hero of good cuisine, the fruitcake.
CEO and founder of Date Lady