Before he lets us into his factory, before he shows us the drums teeming with diced fruit, before he explains how his workers turn rings of pineapple into jellied emerald jewels, Randy Gordon has a question.
He sits across from us at his wide desk and shuffles a stack of papers, as if what he has to ask is hard.
"You're not here to make fun of me, are you?"
For a second, I think he's joking. But his arms are crossed in his starched shirt and his eyes are narrowed with distrust.
"Fruitcakes," he says, "are always the butt of jokes."
• • •
Go ahead, get them out:
How long do fruitcakes last? Until someone actually eats one.
They make great doorstops/dumbbells/pothole fillers.
There's only one fruitcake, Johnny Carson quipped. It just gets regifted every year.
Over the last half-century, Randy Gordon has heard them all. No, they don't make him laugh, not even a little.
His company, Paradise Inc., is the nation's largest producer of candied fruit and peels. Winn-Dixie and Publix and commercial bakeries like Claxton and Harry & David all get their fruitcake fixings from this long row of warehouses along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Plant City.
"If you're eating a fruitcake in this country," Gordon says, "there's a 90 percent chance that fruit was processed here."
Christmas starts in July, the busiest production month, when most of the fruit gets candied and colored. By fall, 10 trucks a day full of green cherries and red pineapple chunks will begin rolling across the highways, ready to stock grocery shelves for holiday baking.
Gordon doesn't care much about the history of fruitcake, or why it became so maligned. He doesn't know why his grandfather bought the business in 1961.
He's a busy man, with 275 employees and 20 products to produce and thousands of pounds of orange peels soaking in corn syrup. In the first three months of this year, Paradise sold $876,809 worth of fruit.
But fruitcake is in decline, and Gordon knows it. Satisfied that we have not come just for the jokes, he agrees to give us a tour of his candy factory — and show us the idea he thinks will save his business.
• • •
Several European countries claim to have invented fruitcake.
Ancient Roman soldiers packed loaves to take to war. During the Middle Ages, monks soaked the dense cakes in booze. English wedding guests tucked a slice beneath their pillows, believing it would make them dream about whom they would marry.
American colonists began candying fruit with sugar, Robert Sietsema writes in A Short History of Fruitcake, "thus making fruitcakes more affordable and popular."
Mail-order fruitcakes began in America in 1913, and for the first half of the century, most families had fruitcake for Christmas.
Things are different in the current millennium.
"I think fruitcake has already peaked. It's pretty much reached its potential," Gordon says. "Fewer people bake today. Just look in the grocery: The baking aisle is half the size it was 20 years ago."
About 70 percent of his product goes to retail customers, people who bake at home. The rest is shipped to commercial bakeries, which sell more than 6 million pounds of fruitcake during November and December.
"We made a big push for the public to use our product year-round; we included all kinds of cookie and cake recipes on the labels," Gordon says. "But it just never caught on. People only think of fruitcake for the holidays."
• • •
We follow Gordon out of his office, through a parking lot, to the end of a sprawling block of warehouses. As he opens double doors, the smells spill out: citrus and steam. As if 20,000 of those cardboard orange slice air fresheners had been hanging from your rearview mirror, sweating in your closed car all day.
Inside, everything is sticky. Take a step and your sneaker gets stuck. Hold a handrail and your palm gets sugarcoated.
Corn syrup fills the air.
"We start here, in winter, with the oranges and grapefruit. That's mostly why we're located here, to be near the citrus groves," Gordon says. After the oranges are juiced at nearby processing plants, Paradise buys truckloads of the peels and brings them to the first warehouse, where they're dumped onto a 10-foot conveyor belt, washed and hand-checked for quality, then sliced into strips or diced into small squares.
The pieces are poured into 55-gallon drums lined with thick blue bags. Then workers add a preserving solution. "The fruit can sit in that indefinitely."
Orange and grapefruit peels are the only local fruits Paradise candies. Cherries come from Michigan, pineapple from Thailand, lemons from Italy, ginger from China. By summer, workers begin "debrining" all the varieties — washing them under hot water. "After they're debrined, they have to be processed pretty quick," Gordon says.
He guides us past the enormous industrial kitchen, where chunks of papaya are being hosed off, into an open room where drums of pineapple chunks line the walls. Workers add the food coloring first — red and green, for Christmas. The chunks are left in the vats overnight, for maximum wattage. Then Gordon's people pour on the corn syrup mixture and turn up the heat.
The first syrup is thin, like water. Workers cook the fruit in that mixture at 180 degrees. Every day, they add more syrup "until it's about 50 percent, so thick you can stand a spoon in it," Gordon says. As they add syrup, they decrease the heat.
"Different fruits have different absorption rates. You want to walk the sugar level up slowly, as it begins to penetrate," said Tom Perryman, quality assurance manager for Paradise. Orange peels can be candied in four days, the quickest process. Sliced pineapples take up to two weeks.
Then the fruit is pumped into 800-gallon vats, the syrup drained. "We recycle it," Gordon says, watching the sticky streams drip into a plastic pipe. On our way out of the processing plant, we stop to wash our hands.
• • •
Before he lets us into his packaging warehouse, before he shows us the cement mixers and men armed with shovels, Gordon wants to tell us about his true love — and his new product.
He guides us toward a wall of clear holding tanks and explains how, about 40 years ago, executives had a hard time finding containers for their candied fruit. So they started making their own.
"A big part of Paradise," he says proudly, "is plastics."
The last warehouse looks most like Charlie's chocolate factory. Belts whip overhead, carrying cartons of glowing green cherries, dumping them down chutes into white-washed cement mixers. Red cherries follow, then yellow-white pineapple, all tumbling in gummy glory through the belly of the big machine.
Across the room, workers stand alongside another conveyor, stirring the fruits to balance the colors. "It's very labor-intensive," Gordon says. "We can't use robots because it's too sticky."
When the mixture is blended, workers start scooping the fruit into containers: 4 ounces, 6 or 8, up to 32 ounces, every holder made on site. The candied concoctions are identical. The labels vary: Kroger, Food Lion, White Swan.
"The last step is banding," Gordon says. More plastic. "Then we put the containers into boxes and, around Labor Day, start shipping them to every major grocery chain in the U.S."
He would offer us some candied fruit, he says. "The French call it glace, with an accent on the e." But we probably wouldn't like it, he admits. "Candied fruit isn't really for snacking," he says. "It's for baking."
Instead, the president of Paradise asks us to try his new product. You can get it in airports and RaceTrac convenience stores. He hopes it will sustain his business after this last generation of fruitcake lovers is too old to chew.
"Think Fruit is a delicious single portion of dehydrated fruit, very high end, gluten-free," he says — not soaked in corn syrup. He hands us a small bag of cherries, another of apple slices.
They're yummy. And they would never stop a door.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8825. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.