Kristine Stock-DeCarles typically wraps up her Christmas shopping the week after Thanksgiving. Before you go hating her, you should know the reason: As one of the family partners in Port Richmond's Stock's Bakery, she has recently entered a vortex of holiday pound cake orders from which she will not emerge until Dec. 25.
Stock-DeCarles and a half-dozen of her employees arrive at the bakery at 4 a.m. daily in the week before Christmas to wrap the cakes in white butcher's paper before spending the next 10 hours taking orders for cakes, selling cakes, or cleaning up after cakes.
"You are so tired. You don't see your family," she said at a table in a back room of the rowhouse bakery last month. "You're pretty much existing on Advil and premade freezer food. You eat and then go right to sleep. Then, the next day, you do it all over again."
The object of all this excitement is a plain-looking 2½-pound brick (or "bar" as the Stocks call it) of dense, moist vanilla or marble pound cake topped with vanilla or chocolate frosting.
Stock-DeCarles' great-grandfather Josef Stock opened Stock's in 1924. His Fleischmann's Bread Yeast Institute-educated son, Frank, introduced the bakery's signature item in the mid-1940s by tweaking the traditional 1-pound sugar, 1-pound butter, 1-pound flour, and 1-pound eggs recipe that gave the classic pound cake its name. "At the time, pound cake was something people made at home, not something they bought. So none of the other bakeries were doing it. He was looking for a niche," Stock-DeCarles says.
And, boy, did he get it. For many Port Richmond families, eating Stock's cakes is as much a tradition as making them is in the Stock family. (Stock-DeCarles works there with co-owner brothers Frank and Mark, husband Larry, daughter Angelina, niece Kelsey, and Culinary Institute of America-trained nephew Eric.) Says Stock-DeCarles: "People will come here to get a cake for their baby's christening, and then for all that baby's birthdays. Then we'll do that girl's wedding cake. Then she'll have a baby and the cycle will start all over."
The loaves are also part of local holiday tradition. The telltale white wrapper predates a machine that now shrink-wraps the cakes in plastic film and is no longer necessary for freshness but is part of tradition and a gift-giving convenience. (A lot of people just slap bows and gift tags on before handing them out.)
Stock's largest holiday pound cake gift order came from a local boy who rose high in the ranks of the autoworkers' union and who for several years flew two employees to Philadelphia in early December to rent a truck and drive 600 bars and 200 pounds of cookies back to his office in Detroit.
To accommodate the holiday pound cake demand, other treats gradually get stripped from Stock's regular menu on a precise schedule throughout December. (Doughnuts and coffee cakes are the first to go; cookies are among the last.) By Christmas week, the ovens are filled with nothing but pound cakes and Christmas-only babka 24/7. "Right as someone is pulling cakes out of the oven, someone else is right behind them loading the shelf," Stock-DeCarles says.
Still, there's a limit to how many of the 2-foot-long loaf pans Stock's two ovens can hold. That's why Stock-DeCarles suggests anyone wanting three or more cakes to preorder. Though some are available for walk-ups, Stock's limits the number any one person can buy to prevent early-morning sellouts.
Waits aren't as bad as you might expect, no longer than 30 minutes even on the busiest days, thanks to a system that involves neither numbers nor filing orders by customer names.
Instead, the sidewalk's single line breaks down into six as the customers enter the store, each line headed by one of the bakery's fastest clerks (a.k.a. the "Quick Six"), who either grab a spare pound cake or two from the counter behind them or run to the section devoted to bags prepacked with the pound cakes the customer ordered.
Sales peak Dec. 23, when the staff swells by a third and the bakery gets so full they let customers exit out a usually closed back door. Stock-DeCarles says procrastinators have a better chance of scoring a spare on Christmas Eve morning.
Stock's closes early that day and stays closed until after New Year's so the pound cake team can get some well-deserved holiday-carol-advertised heavenly peace and sleep.