Gladys Farek was a wife and mother of six girls who literally held down the farm for her traveling salesman husband. She fed and cared for her daughters and the cattle, keeping their homestead functioning in Cistern, Texas (population 150). And in her spare time, she became Texas’ fruitcake queen, appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and “The David Letterman Show.” How did she do it? More importantly, what business and life lessons can you and I learn from Gladys?
I met Gladys two weeks ago at a country wedding outside of Schulenburg. She was the grandmother of the bride. In the first 15 minutes with her I knew all about Gladys’ Bakery and her famous fruitcake. Gladys is now 83 years old now, but could easily pass for younger with her style and vivacity. She delighted in showing off her husband Jimmy like a newly-wed, even though they’ve been married three years. I get the impression Gladys has had that same enthusiasm for every part of her life, a big key to her success. Here are the other keys:
1. Start small right where you are
Do you sabotage yourself by thinking you could accomplish some goal if only you were had more free time or lived place different? Gladys’ story puts an stop to that kind of whining. With all she had going on with the farm, the kids and the cows, Gladys still wanted more and was willing to find it in her current situation. She started looking for an outlet for her creative cooking talents. Her home town of Cistern was a tiny Czech hamlet, so in 1972 she started selling homemade bread to local restaurants a few miles away in bigger places like Flatonia (population 1200).
2. Have a good idea? Do it.
Baking bread was fine, but then Gladys got the notion to bake Texas sized cookies too. Gladys’s big cookies were a big hit. Gladys, her daughters and a friend or two baked and delivered up to 700 dozen a week. She turned her garage into a full-fledged bakery called Gladys’ Cookies Shop. In the process, she gave her hometown a local hangout when she opened her shop each Thursday to sell retail.
3. Keep your priorities straight
Gladys’ mother died when she was two. As a young girl, cooking and baking was just something she and her sisters did to help their daddy and keep their large family fed. In talking to her, I don’t know that baking was a burning passion when she looked around in 1972 for something creative to do that could also bring in extra money. Her real passion was being at home when her daughters returned from school and having the flexibility to go with her girls where and when they needed her. Starting Gladys’ Bakery fit her #1 priority – taking care of her kids
4. Take on an impossible challenge
Steve Jobs built a revolutionary cell phone with one button when competitors were driving us crazy with those ridiculously impractical tiny keys. Gladys took on an even bigger challenge. She wanted to change the way the people thought about fruitcake. Like the folks at the Annual Fruitcake Toss in Manitou Springs, Colorado. The maligned sweet, which traces its present form to the middle ages, can be permanently ungifted in Manitou Springs by launching it on a medieval catapult. How appropriate.
I am not a fan of fruitcake, but Gladys’ version is good. Really! She got rid of the funky insides – the raisins, dates, spices and citron. Instead she loaded her fruitcakes with fresh pecans and just enough batter to hold it together. Cherries and pineapple are the fruits in Gladys version. She sold 1,000 pounds of fruitcakes in her first year.
5. Make a memorable impression
Mixing fruitcake batter by hand is a herculean task. By the next holiday season, Gladys decided to get some mechanical help in the form of a modified cement mixer that she painted bright red. The cement mixer could not only produce huge quantities of Gladys’ fruitcake batter, it provided an unbeatable photo opportunity for media doing seasonal stories in print and broadcast.
With her unusual cake mixer, Gladys built a separate bakery next to her home and went about becoming famous for her award-winning fruitcakes. Over 3,000 pounds of Gladys’ Old Fashioned Czech Pecan Fruitcake was being sent across the country, picked up by motorist traveling to and from Austin and Houston or selling at grocery stores, liquor stores and restaurants on the I-10 corridor.
6. Build on that memorable impression
With the mammoth batter capacity of her cement/fruitcake mixer, Gladys upped her game. She baked a 150-pound fruitcake in the shape of Texas. It measured five feet by six feet and was decorated with concentric red and green candied cherry circles that expanded out from where the little town of Cistern was located. She contacted the media again and word got out. She baked one for the men and women stationed on the USS John F. Kennedy aircraft carrier during Operation Desert Storm.
7. Be ready for your big break
Gladys talked up her bread, her cookies and eventually her fruitcakes to everyone. She became a kind of fruitcake evangelist. The problem, Gladys will tell you, was not the batter but that weird things like citron that many fruitcakes used as filler. She had a great back story, she believed in her product and she made it her business to get the word out.
And one day, a famous fruitcake hater called. When Johnny Carson, the host of “The Tonight Show” had his staff reach out, Gladys though it was a friend playing a prank. After all, Johnny Carson had once joked that “There is only one fruitcake in the entire world and people keep passing it around.” The call was no joke. So in 1990, Gladys sat on Johnny’s famous couch and showed off her Texas sized fruitcake. When Johnny Carson asked Gladys what she would like to do after the show, she had a ready answer for that too. “Take me dancing’,” said Gladys.
8. Know when to move on
Where is Gladys now? Happily retired, married to Jimmy and living in Molton, Texas. She sold the business to her daughter Melissa. Melissa moved Gladys’Bakery a few miles away to her husband’s family homestead in Dubina. The bakery operates in a metal building beside a lake and behind Melissa’s expansive log cabin. A sign directs you onto the family’s land and a narrow road that passes through the family’s herd of cows and rolling hills.
If you visit
It’s just a few miles north of exit 677 on I-10 west in the heart of Czech country in Texas. The painted church in Dubina is only a half-mile farther so another reason to stop. While most of the business is now from mail order or off-site sellers like Prazek’s, people can and do still stop by the bakery. Just check the seasonal retail hours and directions at Gladysfruitcakes.com. Then call Melissa and she’ll have a fruitcake, a rum cake or a dozen Texas sized cookies ready for you.
Key takeaway from the Texas Fruitcake Queen
I repeat, make sure to call Melissa first. Like her mom, Melissa puts her family first. That means her time at Gladys’ Bakery sometimes takes a back seat to her kid’s needs. I think building a business that allows that balance and family members who maintain it are real lasting legacies of Gladys Farek.