25 Years of Fruitcake: Southern Supreme Founder Shares Memories
"I don't like fruitcake." "Has it got that green stuff in it?" "No, thank you."
How many times has Berta Lou Scott, creator of Southern Supreme Fruitcake, heard these comments?
"It was difficult work just to get people to even sample my cake," Scott recalls of the early days.
It's been 25 years since she founded her company, Southern Supreme Gourmet Specialties in Bear Creek, but to this day, Berta still delights in seeing the surprise on the faces of the "adventurous brave souls" who take a bite of her world-famous fruitcake and realize it is indeed good. So good, in fact, that demand for her fruitcake has increased from 2,000 pounds in the first year, to 3,000 pounds a day during the holiday season.
"Sometimes I ask myself, 'How did I make this happen? How did this all fall into place?'" Scott says.
On Thursday, Oct. 30, at 5 p.m., at The Country Bookshop, Scott will share her memories of "the greatest experience I could ever know" when she presents her new memoir and cookbook, "Reflections & Recipes."
"In July 2007, Berta agreed to allow The Country Bookshop to sell her wonderful Southern Supreme products year 'round," says Bobbie Bicket, owner of the 55-year-old independent bookshop in downtown Southern Pines. "We are proud to offer one of North Carolina's best products to local residents and out-of-town visitors, and of course, we are especially pleased that Berta will be here in person to share her story with us."
Berta Lou Phillips was named after her grandmother, Berta Southern Grubbs, who died during the flu epidemic in 1917. At age 12, Berta's mother, Nannie, became the "woman of the house" and stayed home to care for her siblings. She began her life as a "country wife" when she married Burkett Phillips in 1924, and together they had Berta and seven other children.
Life was a challenge in those days. Every Monday, Scott's mother went to the washhouse, started a fire under the cast iron wash pot, boiled the soapy water, used a wringer to rinse the water out, and then hung the clothes on a line to dry. Tuesday she would iron all day.
"You haven't lived unless you have crawled into a bed made up with freshly laundered and ironed bed linen," Scott says. She remembers, too, the wonderful smells from the kitchen where her mother cooked on the wood-burning stove.
Berta's father, a man of "strong work ethics and determination," worked as a mail carrier for Mt. Vernon Springs in Ore Hill (now known as Bear Creek) for 42 years.
"Daddy was determined that his children would not be lazy or dependent on anyone," Scott says. "He wanted us to grow up knowing the value of a dollar, and how to make a dollar. I realize now that our lives are molded by not only by love, but also the love in correction and discipline that we have received."
Scott's father died in 1976 and her mother in 2002 at age 97.
While growing up, it seemed to Scott like they were always preparing food for the animals or themselves. Her brothers did not help at all in the kitchen.
"They did no cooking, and they sure did not wash any dishes," she says. "To my knowledge they never even learned to boil water. We girls were more accomplished at cooking sweets than an actual meal with vegetables and meat. Candy was our specialty because every member of the family had a sweet tooth.
"Every year around Christmas time, we would take a trip to Siler City to Beane's Grocery store. We would buy all the ingredients for our fruitcakes and candy. Mama made fruitcakes the next day. The cakes were soaked in grape juice until we ate them at Christmas."
Fifteen-year-old Berta Scott met her future husband, Hoyt "Teet" Scott, when she and a group of friends went to see the construction of a new bridge.
"Once we were at the bridge this young man picked me up, held me over the side, and pretended to drop me," she says.
She didn't see him again until a year later when her friends arranged a blind date. They soon fell in love and decided to get married at the end of her junior year in high school.
"I've always thought that Hoyt had found a treasure in me; but he allowed, over the years, that he should have dropped me over that bridge," she says.
Scott went to work at the Kellwood Hosiery Mill in Siler City, but she stopped working after her third child was born.
"I was taught from an early age to be independent," Scott says, so she decided to go to cosmetologist school in Greensboro. Hoyt Scott built a small beauty shop in their garage, and within a couple of years she had her own business and a fourth child.
After the children grew up and left home, Scott went to Sandhills Community College, where she took business and computer courses while she continued working as a hairdresser. She never dreamed those classes would give her the help she needed to start her new business.
In 1984, the wood-burning stove company Hoyt had started over a decade before in response to the skyrocketing price of gas, closed when heating prices fell and the demand for wood heaters dropped. It was then that Scott became "obsessed" with the idea of marketing her Christmas fruitcake, which she had made for her customers for years.
"It seemed as though I could not get the idea out of my thoughts," Scott says.
She discussed the idea of a "part-time seasonal job" with her family. Because her garage still had her beauty shop in it, Scott asked her daughter, Belinda, if she would convert her garage into a kitchen.
"Anything you want to do, Mama," she replied.
Berta tasted all the competition, then worked to perfect her fruitcake recipe.
"I worked on the glaze for a year before I got it exactly like I wanted it," she says. "The fruitcake business was contingent not only on the cost of this cake but the taste. Competitors had the quality, the packaging, the looks and the market. But this market had not been introduced to my cake."
Over the next 25 years, Berta and her family, with the help of her friends, built that "part-time seasonal job" into one of the most successful businesses in the state and the country.
"Maybe they didn't see my vision," Scott says of her family, "but they had enough faith in me to follow my lead and give me the greatest experience I could ever know."
For information about the Meet the Author event, call The Country Bookshop at 692-3211.
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