December 2, 2014 – With lives dedicated to quiet contemplation, it’s easy to see why monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage south of Big Sur had trouble singing the praises of their delicious fruitcakes and date nut cakes.
They’ve been supporting themselves by making the brandy-soaked holiday treats and Holy Granola for 40 years, but it became increasingly hard to be heard in today’s noisy, digital, pre-Christmas frenzy. So this year, they’ve brought in Bay Area business consultant Michael DiPietro to help. The consultant knew the monks from his many personal retreats at the hermitage and when they asked him to assist with the sales and marketing end of their business, he gladly accepted.
DiPietro said one of the steps in his process was doing market research on fruitcakes sold by religious orders. Yes, you read that right. There are enough fruitcakes being sold by religious orders to do market research. The Camaldolese are a Benedictine order, as are a number of Trappist groups that also sell the holiday treat. At $43 online (a little more at local retailers) for the three-pounders, DiPietro said they’re in line with other organizations’ offerings.
Although that price may seem high, DiPietro pointed out that the ingredients—especially the fruit and nuts—are pretty expensive. And, he pointed out, the moist, dense cakes provide plenty of servings for the price. He said that one fruitcake will easily feed 30-40 people as part of a buffet. If kept carefully wrapped in the fridge, the brandy-soaked treats will last—well, nobody actually knows how long. This reporter has enjoyed one well into the Easter season with no loss of flavor or texture.
DiPietro’s contributions have so far included updating the monks’ computer system, standardizing the packaging for both the one- and three-pound cakes, and keeping a better eye on inventory and cost. The packaging also has been updated with a holiday theme and a notecard with the history of the cakes. He’s helped the monks streamline the fulfillment process so that most orders are shipped the same day they’re placed. All of these new-fangled updates apply to the monks’ Holy Granola, as well—except that the packaging hasn’t changed. It still features an adorable drawing of a monk contemplating a butterfly.
EMB talked to Brother Bede Healey, the hermitage treasurer, about the need for outside help and his position as someone who, on one hand, is not supposed to worry about his daily bread and on the other, has the duty of exercising stewardship for the group. “We don’t have too many MBAs applying to join the hermitage,” laughed the former clinical psychologist. “This is just one of my tasks,” he added. For him, it’s no different from sweeping the floors or cooking the daily communal lunches the brothers share with their guests at the retreat. As a contemplative order, the brothers spend about half of each day in prayer and reading and the other half in working in some way to support the community. That’s where the fruitcakes and granola come in.
Brother Bede said that the monks enjoy opening their grounds to people who want to partake of the silence and spectacular views. The fundraising they do helps keep the prices for retreats to a minimum. Indeed, the retreat rooms are just $115 per night including meals. Individual hermitages—modular buildings with full baths, kitchenettes and sun decks—are $125.
Brother Bede and DiPietro both want people to know that the money they spend on the fruitcake goes to supporting the monks who live there, some of whom have been there almost since its beginnings over 50 years ago. They maintain their own roads, generate their own electricity and supply their own water. They also support a resource that’s growing ever-rarer: an opportunity for silence and solitude. As Brother Bede said, “Partaking of that makes us more human.”
We’ll eat to that!
New Camaldoli Fruitcakes and granola can be purchased at the Hermitage Gift Shop, 64275 Highway One, Big Sur; Star Market in Salinas; Bruno’s, Nielsen Bros. and Cornucopia in Carmel; at the Carmel Mission; and online www.hermitagebigsur.com
To find out more about the hermitage and book a retreat www.contemplation.com
Elaine Hesser grew up in rural Pennsylvania and started cooking at age 6. By age 9, she’d made her first dinner and at midlife, is amazed when high school graduates can’t scramble eggs. After the U.S. Army paid for her B.A., it also moved her to Monterey County, where she served on active duty at Ft. Ord and Ft. Hunter Liggett. She has a wide variety of interests, but is most passionate about faith, writing, and food – and encourages everyone never to stop learning and looking for truth.