ASTORIA, QUEENS – After the bankruptcy of the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, yearly customers of the company’s Jane Parker fruitcakes were left bereft of their favorite holiday treat. However, two Long Island food entrepreneurs, brothers Alex and Chris Ronacher, have revived the historic brand, which was nearly as famous as A&P’s house brand, Eight O’Clock Coffee.
The cakes were beloved; they were packed, far more than others, with maximum fruit and nuts, and had almost 65 percent non-cake ingredients, including raisins, nuts, orange peel, cherries and pecans. Due to their position at the end aisles of the nation’s largest grocer, they were also the nation’s best-known brand, and only available at A&P.
The Ronachers, entrepreneurs who run an online candy mail order marketplace, the The Online Candy Shop, had become aware of the brand as they did a vigorous business reselling the cakes each Christmas season, buying them in bulk.
“We too were upset when it wasn’t available,” said Alex, who has spent roughly the last year putting back the various aspects of the brand, including manufacturing, packaging, marketing and selling. They purchased the brand from the auctioned pieces of A&P, which had been marketed by Hilco Streambank, a company that not only liquidates buildings but also finds new buyers for brands, websites and other intellectual property. The brand was listed for sale last fall, among other assets of A&P. In total, they expect to accomplish the brand re-launch for less than $100,000, a bargain for such an iconic piece of American food history.
The cakes were so important to the overall image of A&P that they were advertised as specialty products in magazines. They echoed the spice trade and clipper ship image of A&P, which was once the nation’s larger grocer. A&P promised that “you’d delight the family with this special treat.”
“Sugar ‘n spice, ‘n’ everything nice! – that’s what Jane Parker Fruit Cakes are made of! No place is too far to go, no price too high to pay for the rare fruits, nuts, sugars, and spices which make Jane Parker Fruit Cakes such festive favorites…such a welcome addition to the Holiday menu.”
The brothers are running Jane Parker as a standalone business, one they hope to expand to other products in later years. Right now, they are focused on getting what was right about the fruitcakes back, piecing the company back together. The process was much more difficult than they expected, even though they knew what was right about the product, and were well-familiar with it as a retailer.
The Jane Parker brand is larger than just the holiday fruit cakes. Jane Parker was the A&P bakery brand, and it had a giant bakery that was located just across the World’s Fair site in Flushing Meadows, Queens. N.Y. Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had the company turn off the sign during the World’s Fair; it appears in many photos of the fair and the site is now a Home Depot.
“When you want to try to recreate something,” said Alex Ronacher, “it’s detective work to find out the missing pieces.”
Challenges of rebirth
There were dozens of challenges in the restart, beginning with the recipe. They purchased the recipe and all rights. However, when they were sourcing to have it baked, they realized there was a typo in the formula. “It was a switch of a number,” said Alex. “We wanted to make sure we had everything right.”
Where to have the cakes made again was also a challenge. It had been made in Canada, but things changed after the closing. “They didn’t want to bake the fruitcake any more,” said Chris Ronacher. The brothers ended up finding a manufacturer in the U.S., which meant that the product could be advertised as Made in the U.S.A. again.
“They got it exactly right,” said Chris. The company is offering two styles, a classic fruit cake and a dark. The classic fruitcake even comes in a 48 ounce ring in a decorative Christmas tin, with a substantial price of $59.97, which will be shipping beginning this Oct. 11. This puts it in the realm of other specialty holiday cakes sold at places like Nieman-Marcus.
Another challenge was getting the graphics back together. They had to recreate all the packaging, and find new manufacturers for that, as well. “It was very daunting,” said Chris Ronacher, whose family friend graphic artist Ion H assist in recreating the box. Cousin Stephanie Schamban took the photos.
The cake’s last sales were in 2014, so even figuring how much to make for the initial Christmas season was a challenge, as previous runs of the product were for online sales on Amazon, wholesale and at A&P stores. Since the stores were no more, they have had to ratchet back, and will initially just be selling online, and will use the same Amazon channels.
A&P, in its declining years, in 2006 sold off its famed Eight O’Clock coffee brand to India’s Tata for approximately $220 million. Other brands that were well known by A&P, however, were just dropped, and much brand value was lost by the company. That was a great loss; in its heyday, A&P featured its own brands, which were of a high quality and far above many national brands. As the company declined in the 1970s and 80s, its quality suffered, and it dropped house brands as it added many different struggling grocery companies to its lineup.
As part of the deal, the brothers got the Jane Parker web domain back, and have put up a newly designed, stylish janeparker.com website showing the product in handsome photos. After the launch this year, they are looking at expanding to other Jane Parker products.