Chefs put the finishing touches on Watkins’ record-breaking 260-layer cake. The cake, which measured 73 inches tall and weighed 1,250 pounds, was created to celebrate the company’s 150th anniversary.
Contributed Photo.

Watkins’ world-record-breaking cake



In celebration of its 150th anniversary, Watkins, Inc., teamed up with Wuolett Bakery to celebrate the company’s birthday with a bang — by breaking a world record. On Friday, the company broke the world record for the most layers in an unstructured layer cake, surpassing the former record of over 230 layers.

“We’re one of the few companies in the world, let alone America, that has been in constant business for 150 years,” Watkins CEO Mark Jacobs said. “It’s a big milestone.”

According to Jacobs, the choice to bake a cake stems from one of the company’s most important products — it’s all-natural vanilla extract. “We pride ourselves on the world’s best vanilla, which is a key ingredient of cake,” he said. In the end, the cake used seven whole pounds of Watkins’ vanilla in its recipe.

The final cake amounted to 260 layers, shattering the previous record for 230, and measured 6-foot-1-inch tall at its peak. Wuollet Bakery used 900 eggs, 480 pounds of sugar, 150 pounds of flour, 102 pounds of shortening, 45 pounds of butter, 32 pounds of oil, 45 pounds of milk and 30 pounds of water to construct the 1,250 pound mega-pastry.

According to Christina Conlon, adjudicator for Guinness World Records, the cake had to follow a strict set of guidelines to be eligible for the world title.

“Our giant foods must be made in the same way as the traditionally-made item,” Conlon explained. “There also must be no internal or external support in the record-breaking cake.” Conlon added that the recipe and mock-up for the cake must be approved by the Guinness World Records team as well as local hygienists, in this case the city food health and safety inspector. “There is no food waste in our giant food records. Each of the 5,000 servings of the cake will be given to guests at today’s celebration,” Conlon said.

It wasn’t enough for the layers to just be made, either. Each layer was baked individually and stacked, and once fully constructed, it had to stand for 60 seconds on its own. “The cake stood for the full 60 seconds, plus another 20 or 30 while I was getting my stopwatch ready and explaining the process,” Conlon said.

Jacobs added that as a company based around comfort products, Watkins thrives off connecting generations, so baking a giant cake was a creative way to represent that ideal. “You hear stories about people’s great-grandmothers baking with Watkins’ vanilla, and there aren’t many brands like that,” he said.

The history of the Watkins family and the company is a storied one which ties closely to the history of Winona itself. The Watkins company was founded in 1868 by J.R. Watkins in Plainview, Minn., when he began selling liniment door-to-door in Southeast Minnesota that was advertised as “safe for man or beast.” The small brown bottles have been a staple of Watkins’ product line ever since.

Mark Peterson, Winona mayor and executive director of the Winona County Historical Society, explained that Watkins made a name for himself not only as a trusted salesman in a time of false advertisement and snake oils, but also as a consumer-focused entrepreneur.

“A lot of door-to-door salesman were not very reputable, but J.R. was and he had a good product,” Peterson said. “He was also the first to include a trial mark. If people didn’t like the product before they got to the mark, they could get their money back.”

In 1885, the company moved to Winona, which was at the time the fourth-largest city in the state, and expanded its product line to include baking products and other household items. “We had obvious advantages, with our railroad and river transportation,” Peterson added.

Watkins himself died in 1911, but his company continued to grow into the middle of the century, when it was at one time the largest direct-sales company in the world. Products were shown at the International Exposition in Paris, France, the Chicago World’s Fair and the New York World’s Fair.

The company has since declined, shuttering its print shop in the mid-1980s and moving away from door-to-door sales, but in the early 2000s, the company’s products made the jump from doors to stores, with products at Walmart, Target, Walgreens and others. “They’re not quite the same household name that they once were,” Peterson said, “but they are still a significant presence in Winona.”

Its headquarters, the J.R. Watkins Medical Company, is one of the most prominent landmarks of Winona, towering above downtown on the east side of the city. The building, completed a year after Watkins’ death, was designed by prairie school architect George Washington Maher. The massive structure uses many staples of prairie school architecture, including an open floor plan, horizontal lines and an emphasis on artful decoration, including stained-glass windows and small decorative flourishes. In 2004, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s one of the most beautiful office buildings in Minnesota and the country, and a contributor to the important architecture of the city,” Peterson said.

Today, Watkins, Inc., sells more than 200 different products across the globe, including spices, extracts, beauty products and its trademark liniment, with each product emblazoned with J.R. Watkins’ face and name.

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