“Don’t trust a skinny baker,” says Richard Grant, who rubs his belly when asked if he still eats fruitcake. Richard is the third generation running Grant’s Bakery in Huntingdon, Que., a small town 60 kilometres southwest of Montreal that was best known for its textile industry until the last mill closed in 2007.
Grant’s Bakery is a family affair, with Richard’s wife, Beatrice, and two of their four daughters also working in the business. It has been in continuous operation since 1945, but its 75th anniversary last year went by unnoticed because of COVID-19.
The bakery’s calling card is its fruitcake. Founder Henry Grant used an old family recipe when he first opened. But it wasn’t until 1980, when his grandson, Richard, took over that the fruitcake line was expanded.
As the small guy in the field of commercial bakeries, Richard says they were able to have better quality and add more fruit, leading to a far superior taste. Service clubs took notice and Grant’s Bakery went from selling approximately 200 units of fruitcake annually to around 200,000 this year.
Fruitcake season begins with the tasting and ordering of raisins and candied fruits in January; the production line runs from June to December. In 2020, when the pandemic hit, the purchase of ingredients was already in place, however customer orders ended up being cancelled or greatly reduced. Service clubs are the main buyers of fruitcakes at Grant’s Bakery, and no one was holding fundraising events last year.
“By July, we had an indication that numbers would be down,” says Ruth Grant, one of Richard’s daughters and fruitcake production planning manager. “In October, we finally knew we had less orders.” As a result, the bakery shortened its production days.
“COVID allowed us to have gratitude,” says Sarah Grant, another daughter and director of the family business, because people returned to buying local and were able to rediscover Grant’s Bakery. “People reverted back to family traditions as they spent more time together.”
It used to be that the biggest demographic of fruitcake lovers was the older generation. But with 15 different recipes – from dark or light; nuts or no nuts; extra raisins or more candied fruit; and still more recipes in development – the Grants hope it’s not just grandma eating their cakes any more.
This year, the service clubs are back buying fruitcakes and grocery store orders are up. “We are on an upswing right now,” Ruth says. “It’s a long time coming.”
They were always the little guy in the market and were happy with that as it allowed them to maintain a hands-on, semi-automatic production line of 14 to 16 people. Because of COVID-19, that number has fallen, with some staff choosing to retire and others not returning to work after the first waves of the pandemic.
“We have less people and are still trying to keep up with the same amount of production output,” Sarah says. “COVID brought the family together. We had to depend on each other and fill in any holes as needed. We had to work as a team.”
Richard, at 73, is back on the ovens, checking fruitcake by touch and overseeing the entire bakery line, including breads, cakes, cookies and doughnuts. Ruth and her husband, Michael, have added shipping to their regular duties, and their daughters help out by labelling doughnuts before school.
As the family moves forward, they remember their past with pride. Bakery founder Henry Grant worked in Labrador, sending much needed money home. But he wanted to be closer to his family and returned to Quebec, opening the business in 1932.
His sons, Charles and Gordon, used a retired RCMP horse to pull a wagon of Wonder Bread that they picked up from the train station when rationing during the Second World War meant they couldn’t bake their own. After meeting Beatrice, Richard was so distracted he kept ruining batches of bread by mistakenly using salt instead of sugar. Finally, his father told him to “go marry that girl.”
As the Grants gather around the lunch table at the bakery, they laugh about all the fruitcake jokes they have heard over the years: Fruitcakes are so heavy they are used as doorstops. There is really only one fruitcake in the world and everyone keeps passing it along. The family have even added a joke of their own: A fourth Wise Man was kicked out of the stable in Bethlehem after bringing fruitcake as a gift.
As they talk about people who don’t like fruitcake or have never tried it, the Grants, almost in unison, cry out: “You haven’t tried ours.”
Photography by Christinne Muschi