Monks hope fruitcake can again be a cash cowl

Dec 23 2010 - 6:09pm

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Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times
Father Zacchaeus Naegele takes a fruitcake from a walk-in refrigerator at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, Calif., on Dec. 14. Monks at the hermitage are trying to revive a traditional fruitcake business to cover gaps in their annual budget.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times
Father Raniero Hoffman rings the bell to call monks to the 5:30 a.m. vigils at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, California, on Dec. 14. Monks at the hermitage are trying to revive a traditional fruitcake business to cover gaps in their annual budget.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times
Father Zacchaeus Naegele takes a fruitcake from a walk-in refrigerator at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, Calif., on Dec. 14. Monks at the hermitage are trying to revive a traditional fruitcake business to cover gaps in their annual budget.
Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times
Father Raniero Hoffman rings the bell to call monks to the 5:30 a.m. vigils at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Lucia, California, on Dec. 14. Monks at the hermitage are trying to revive a traditional fruitcake business to cover gaps in their annual budget.

BIG SUR, Calif. -- The peal of the church bell splits the predawn darkness like a summons from God himself.

The hermits of Big Sur rise from their beds, slip on white robes and emerge one by one from their quarters -- concrete-block cells heated with propane stoves and adorned with third-hand furniture and framed inscriptions of St. Romuald's Brief Rule For Camaldolese Monks.

Sit in your cell as in paradise.

Put the whole world behind you and forget it.

If only it were that easy.

The Catholic monks of the New Camaldoli Hermitage have lived a world apart in the inspirational majesty of Big Sur for half a century. They know well the power of prayer and contemplation.

Money management is another matter.

Never did they imagine their most vexing problem would be finding a way to close a $300,000-a-year budget deficit. Or reviving a flagging fruitcake business that has helped support them for decades.

The monks are like countless American families struggling through hard times. They're working harder but digging into dwindling savings to make ends meet. Their home is paid for, but repairs are on hold indefinitely. The viability of their Thoreau-like existence is in doubt.

"I'll be honest: I don't understand finances at all," said Father Raniero Hoffman, the hermitage's prior for the last dozen years. "Our whole way of life is beyond what society today would say is practical."

They came to the mountaintop seeking escape from the distractions of society. They found that some distractions cannot be avoided.

Equally humbling are the pressures facing all monasteries: an aging population of monks and a paucity of new recruits.

Fifteen men call the New Camaldoli Hermitage home, down from 25 a decade ago. During that time, no one has completed the multi-year apprenticeship for inclusion into the community.

The monks' average age is 65. Yet there is always work to be done: cooking, cleaning, managing the gift shop and the handful of austere ocean-view rooms and trailers rented to guests seeking respite from the outside world.

Monks do not retire. Brother Emmanuel, 83 and with two new knees, clears brush driving a skid loader.

Father Zacchaeus Naegele, who was a U.S. Coast Guard cook before breaking off a marriage engagement and becoming a priest, is "head of fruitcakes."

But the 59-year-old is also the community's tailor, assistant kitchen master, assistant guest master, shipping manager and "infirmarian" -- the person responsible for caring for monks who become ill. His main charge is Father Bernard, who is 82 and afflicted with advanced Parkinson's disease.

Diversions from work, prayer and contemplation are few, although several monks have computers in their cells and Sunday is film night.

"This is a very unique way of life, and it takes a very special type of person to embrace it," said Brother Bede John Healey, 58.

Brother Bede was charged with overseeing the hermitage's $1.3 million annual budget, a demanding job for which he -- a clinical psychologist by training -- had no expertise.

Four years ago, with the stock market surging, he had a revelation. The hermitage's finances were not as healthy as they seemed. Paper profits on long-held investments masked the reality that day-to-day expenses were outrunning income and donations.

When one supporter -- a relative of a monk who had been giving $100,000 a year -- died, the monastery had to raid its savings to fill the budget hole.

The hermitage property itself has become a money pit. Its water lines, gas pipes and sewage system are buckling with age. The monks share their cells with termites. The motor that rings the chapel's bell is broken, so calls to prayer are sounded by hand.

"Our founders would be shocked at the costs of keeping this thing going," Brother Bede said.

The hermitage's 3-pound cakes cost $38 and resemble a brick. But they taste nothing like the typical dry doorstops that are given time and again before being dispatched to the garbage.

Based on a decades-old recipe from a monk who had been a Navy cook, the hermitage's brandy-dipped fruitcakes are moist and flavorful.

"I can't tell you," Father Zacchaeus, the fruitcake honcho, said when asked how that is achieved. "They'll kill me."

Italian monks planted the Camaldoli flag in the United States in 1958 with a large donation from a foundation run by Harry and Erica John, heirs to the Miller Brewing Co. fortune. The monks bought the Big Sur property, a failed dude ranch, and built much of the complex themselves.

A consultant was hired to show them a path forward. The monks needed to market themselves to potential donors. They needed to raise room rates, which are treated as donations for tax purposes. Who else would ask $70 a night for such a priceless view?

And they needed to run their fruitcake business like a business, and start promoting it as a brand.

"The Trappists have been good at that," Father Robert Hale said of the acknowledged heavyweights in the monastery fruitcake business. "They're driven. Workaholics, really. Our community wants to be more balanced in our lives between work and prayer. They might think we're lazy."

The hermitage's 3-pound cakes cost $38 and resemble a brick. But they taste nothing like the typical dry doorstops that are given time and again before being dispatched to the garbage.

Based on a decades-old recipe from a monk who had been a Navy cook, the hermitage's brandy-dipped fruitcakes are moist and flavorful.

"I can't tell you," Father Zacchaeus, the fruitcake honcho, said when asked how that is achieved. "They'll kill me."

But stiff competition from other monasteries and the outsourcing of baking to a company near Monterey, Calif., eight years ago have cut annual cake sales to about 5,000 a year from 9,000 a decade ago.

"People bought it because it was made by us -- all by hand. When they read on the package that it was made at a bakery, a lot of them probably said 'Let's go find another monastery where they do make it themselves,' " said Father Zacchaeus. "We were afraid our equipment was going to fall apart, and we didn't have the manpower anymore."

The monks may never become Mad Men, but they're poised to make their pitch.

"For years people didn't attend to the financial side of things," Brother Bede said. "It's been hard for the monks to face up to that."

At one point, Brother Bede broached the idea of selling the hermitage property and moving somewhere less isolated and expensive to maintain.

How often does 900 acres of Shangri-La hit the market? The payday would ensure the hermitage's financial stability for generations.

"It was a visceral reaction. A shudder," Brother Bede said of the response from his brethren. "We have men buried here," he said. "We would lose so much. ... It's our home. Selling is not an option."

Selling more fruitcakes is.

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