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The Family Business Built on a Bedrock of Fruitcake

December 13, 1990|EVAN CUMMINGS

The way Tim Clark figures it, in the 30 years that his father's Tom Clark Confections has been in business, the company has melted enough butter to coat one billion pieces of toast and gone through enough nuts to build a mountain you could ski on. Tom Clark himself boasts that his company has popped enough corn to thread a garland 1.8 million miles long.

If you have ever munched on a bag of almond, pecan or macadamia nut popcorn candy, chances are it was Tom Clark's under wraps. Tom Clark Confections manufactures 93 different products for other candy manufacturers sold by private label to fine department stores, amusement parks and specialty retailers across the nation. The company is the city's oldest and largest privately owned candy company in the Los Angeles area.

The business was founded in 1941 by Tom Sr.'s father, also named Tom Clark. He was trouble-shooter for a Los Angeles-based flour company and he had big ideas about fruitcake. He developed his own recipe using 90% fruit and only 10% dough, and decided to go into business for himself. The cakes were a hit and soon he was selling to restaurant chains.

Tom Sr. acquired a taste for family tradition at his own father's knee working for the company after school each day. In 1956, disillusioned with dental school, he joined the company full time. His wife, Beverly, followed soon after. Newly married and enthusiastic, the creative couple injected new life into the fruitcakes. New recipes appeared: rum and butter, brandy, and island holiday, made of pineapple, jumbo macadamia nuts and fresh coconut. All three were top sellers.

Nevertheless, the company was faced with a sticky problem. Fruitcakes are seasonal. "We began making caramel-flavored popcorn, but other people were already making that," he says. Beverly and Tom Clark, not even a year in the business, decided to try something different.

"One night at the store," he says, "we took some of the pecans, almonds and macadamias we were baking into our fruitcakes and tossed them into the caramel popcorn mix." Voila. Designer popcorn candy. The product revolutionized the family business and crunched the competition.

These days, you'll find most of the Tom and Beverly Clark family working the business. Sons Tom Jr., 31, Tim, 29, and daughters Karen Ellstrom, 36, and Janie Heinrich, 33, as well as several assorted spouses and grandchildren, have all done their part.

"From the time we were big enough to stick a bow on a candy tin, we all helped out in the store, especially during the holiday season," Janie recalls. The Clark kids were expected to work an average of two hours per day at any job they chose. "It was so much fun," Karen says, "that if you ask me if I worked as a kid I would have to say no. It never felt like work to me."

Tom Jr. says that his parents never forced their children into the family business: "We were expected to help out, sure, but it was our decision to stay in the business. Mom and Dad's only requirement was a college degree." All four Clark children are college graduates.

Tom Sr. is the company's official president, but it's a title he eschews. "We don't pay much attention to titles," he says. "We use them for the benefit of our bankers and vendors, but among ourselves they don't mean much." Each year father and sons engage in good-natured competition to determine who will serve as president. "Believe it or not, we take turns," Tom Jr. says. "Whoever wins our annual racquetball game wins the title."

"In a family business it is crucial that each person be willing and able to step in and do whatever is required," Tom Sr. says. "If any one of us were unable to perform, any member of our family could step in and take over."

Company profits have skyrocketed in recent years. "But we still make our candy the old-fashioned way," Tom Jr. says, "in small batches in copper kettles over an open flame. We use 93 score butter, premium imported ingredients such as nuts, vanilla and coconut."

During the Christmas rush--they start preparing in July--the entire family gets into the act. That is when Karen, a dental hygienist, and her husband Merv, whose dental practice she manages, and Janie's husband, Bob, a certified public accountant, can be found at all hours, sorting, weighing and bagging the confections that Janie--a homemaker who works for the company part-time--incorporates into holiday gift baskets.

Both women say that their husbands get a kick out of the seasonal moonlighting. Karen recalls the warning her father gave her then-fiance when they announced their marriage plans. "Dad said, 'We're a package deal, Merv. You take her, you're stuck with us.' Merv had come from a close family, but I don't think he was prepared for this crew!"

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