If Bear Bryant and Princess Grace eat 'em, they must be McNutt's

What Dom Perignon is to champagne and Romanoff is to caviar, Bill McNutt's bakery is to fruitcake. McNutt is the prince of fruitcakes, a merry mogul whose lavish and caloric confections set mouths watering around the world every Christmas. Princess Grace, Arnold Palmer, Mary Martin, Estée Lauder, Bear Bryant and dozens of U.S. embassies have them delivered. So do 400,000 other customers who last year put away 3.8 million pounds of "the world's finest" DeLuxe Fruit Cake baked by McNutt (yes, it's his real name) in Corsicana, Texas, a sleepy town of 21,652 50 miles southeast of Dallas.

Now, at the height of the holiday season, McNutt's Collin Street Bakery has 600 employees—10 times the usual number—making and mailing out his aged edibles. (Fruitcakes, explains McNutt, are best eaten when they are between three weeks and two months old, after the flavors have blended together.) His cakes are not for sale in any store. "We could not succeed selling it at a retail level," he explains, "because it would cost about one-third more over the counter to maintain our profit margin."

McNutt's product is 27 percent pecans, 10 percent honey-egg batter and 63 percent fruit (e.g., Malaysian pineapples, California raisins and cherries from the Pacific Northwest). It has no preservatives and is hand-decorated. The price: $4 to $5 a pound for cakes ranging from two to five pounds, which doesn't discourage customers. Since 1974 domestic sales have doubled and foreign sales to 192 countries have increased tenfold. (In 1979 McNutt's cakes accounted for 3.8 percent of all U.S. surface packages shipped overseas.) This year McNutt expects a gross of $16 million.

The company started in 1896, when a Texan named Tom McElwee joined up with German immigrant baker Gus Weidmann, who brought the recipe with him from his native Wiesbaden. John Ringling's circus performers, who appeared frequently in Corsicana, were among their first customers, as were Will Rogers and Enrico Caruso, who played in the oil boomtown's opera house and stayed in the small, elegant hotel above the bakery. In 1946 McNutt's father, Bill Sr., and his uncle, Bob Rutherford, bought the bakery and turned it into a family affair. The elder McNutt peddled samples at the Texas state fair from a covered wagon pulled by miniature mules he bred. Bill Jr., now 56, went after the mail-order business. He started by searching in the Yellow Pages for companies that would have long Christmas lists and now oversees a computerized operation that reminds previous customers in September that it's time to order again. Two of his four children—Bill III, 26, and Bob, 24—have joined the business. This season Bill III added a toll-free number for ordering. Still, letters addressed simply "Fruitcake, Texas" somehow make it to the bakery.

McNutt used to be tempted by acquisition overtures from food giants like Sara Lee and H.J. Heinz. "Then one Monday morning as I got up to go to work," he recalls, "it dawned on me that I was doing what I want to do." Besides, adds Bill III, the McNutts offer something special: "The only food I know of that tastes better a month after it's baked."