The one and only Eli’s Cheesecake, considered a Chicago food icon, could be the largest specialty cheesecake bakery in the country, producing more than 15,000 products a day at its 62,000-sq.-ft. Cheesecake World state-of-the-art bakery/retail shop/visitors’ center.
Eli Schulman a renowned Chicago restaurateur famous for his award-winning restaurant, Eli’s the Place for Steak, had a dream of one day taking his tasty signature cheesecake dessert to new heights. A legend in Chicago for 39 years, the restaurant was a hit and so was the dessert. Customers proclaimed the cheesecake “Chicago’s finest.” But could Eli Schulman ever have dreamed that his cheesecakes would one day be the subject of online videos, be featured on the Home Shopping Network; or be the subject of a social media smart-phone app?
Eli Schulman’s dream years ago was to create a signature food item that he could take outside of the restaurant. That food item was the cheesecake, which made its debut at the first Taste of Chicago on July 4, 1980, and soon led to the creation of its own company.
Fast-forward 30-plus years. With son Marc Schulman at the helm of the Eli’s Cheesecake Co. as president, Eli Schulman’s dream has more than been fulfilled. And the cheesecake company is still committed to its heritage and to artisan baking to grow even further.
And grow it has. Eli’s has created enormous, multi-tiered cheesecakes for the 1993 and 1997 presidential inaugurations of Bill Clinton and the 2009 and 2013 inaugurations of Barack Obama. “Our cheesecake has gone into the lexicon of great Chicago foods,” Marc Schulman points out. “The cheesecakes are in a category today with the great barbecued ribs and deep-dish pizzas of Chicago as a signature gift. One highlight is our kiosk at O’Hare
Airport. But we’re an artisan bakery and stick to our values, quality and heritage, which goes back 73 years with my father’s restaurant business.”
The popularity of the cheesecakes and other delectable desserts became so great that the company was able to build a large corporate office and production plant on the northwest side of Chicago in 1996. The facility houses a retail store, a visitors’ center and dessert café. Affectionately called Cheesecake World, the 62,000-sq.-ft., state-of-the-art complex generates more than 15,000 cheesecakes and other treats each day. The retail café sells many of the cheesecake varieties as well as Eli’s merchandise, such as hats and shirts.
“We have continued to develop the business and products, market channels and events ever since,” Schulman says. “And we’ve stayed with what we believe in.”
That means the bakery still takes its time to create its high-quality desserts slowly, in small batches, using top-notch ingredients to develop optimum flavors. The artisan desserts are still made with the finest ingredients like cultured cream cheese and Madagascar Bourbon vanilla and are hand-decorated by pastry artists.
But it’s also highly automated. In fact, the Cheesecake World production plant goes through more than 4 million lb. of cream cheese, 500,000 lb. of eggs, 250,000 lb. of butter and 13,000 lb. of Bourbon vanilla each year. Operating 24 hours a day, usually five days a week, the bakery has a knack for making special-occasion cheesecakes for large events such as the White Sox 2005 World Series Championship, many Taste of Chicago summer food festivals and special events for celebrities such as Jay Leno, Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
Many varieties, many channels
All of the products, which come in myriad shapes and flavors, are shipped frozen and are sold in all 50 states, Canada, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Customers include retail, foodservice and wholesale clients. “We serve restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, small fast-casual eateries, airlines, sporting events, you name it,” Schulman says. “We’re distributor-based, and partner with chains. We have created products for many of the major supermarkets, we have videos of how we make the cakes on YouTube, we’re featured in various catalogs of companies such as Williams-Sonoma, HoneyBaked Ham and Macy’s, and we’re also featured on the Home Shopping Network.”
Approximately 60% of Eli’s business is in foodservice and 40% covers retail. “Foodservice is so many different things, from transportation to coffee shops,” he notes. “We’re trying to offer our products to every one of them.”
Variety is the spice of cheesecake, it seems, and the company’s repertoire is large and continues to expand. “We probably make about 150 to 200 stock-keeping units (SKU),” he says. “We have several seasonal items; maybe 20% are seasonal/holiday-specific, such as our pumpkin cheesecake and valentine heart-shaped cheesecake.”
Vice president of marketing, Debbie Marchok, explains that Eli’s also makes mini cheesecakes and a 3-in. round version. There are also 7- and 8-in. rounds that serve 12 people and 9- and 10-in. rounds that serve 14 to 16. Most of the desserts are pre-sliced for convenience and last up to seven days in the refrigerator, if kept it their original containers and tightly wrapped in plastic wrap after opening. They can be stored frozen at 0 deg. F for up to six months.
“We are about to launch a 10-in., Mediterranean Honey Ricotta Almond cheesecake with roasted almonds and pistachios,” Marchok explains. “We source the honey locally from our partnership with the National Honey Board and the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, [a public school offering urban students an agribusiness curriculum]. The cake is designed for fine dining and is a real hero in its size. It’s an amazing recipe.”
The new cake speaks to the trend of Mediterranean foods and their healthful benefits, she adds. “These foods are very popular right now, and the cake will debut at the National Restaurant Show, so your timing couldn’t be better,” she says with a smile.
Also new is a Key Lime cheesecake, which joins about 100 other cheesecake flavors such as Vanilla Bean, combinations of multiple cheesecake flavors, Lemon Mixed Berry, Hot Chocolate, Salted Caramel, Blackberry Sour Cream, Strawberry Swirl, Red Velvet, White Chocolate Raspberry, mini cheesecakes, bite-sized Cheesecake Cuties and many others. The company’s other desserts include gluten-free items, tarts featuring several unique crusts, tiramisu and cakes such as Triple Chocolate, Carrot Cake and Tres Leches Cake. With the exception of an Irish Cream Cheesecake, all of the cheesecakes and desserts are certified kosher.
“The success of our business isn’t necessarily in the number of SKUs we make,” Schulman remarks. “It also has to do with food safety and operational excellence. And we thrive on the ability to be very flexible and are very customer-service biased. We can get involved very quickly in a project. It doesn’t do any good to be rigid.”
Eli’s Cheesecake is what Schulman calls Chicago-style, and is unique to Chicago in that it’s baked with a high profile and has a firm exterior and a very creamy interior. It’s slowly baked to a golden brown in one of the plant’s 70-ft.-long x 12-ft.-wide tunnel ovens. The butter cookie crust is baked first, also to a golden brown. Clean-label ingredients are used, including cream cheese, sugar, eggs, sour cream, pure vanilla, salt and no preservatives.
Another unique aspect of the company is that many of its fillings are actually made in-house; it doesn’t purchase them from an outside supplier.
On average, the cheesecakes contain 0.5-1.5 g. of trans-fat per serving, due to the fact that they are baked with more than 65% cultured cream cheese, cultured sour cream and butter. But no margarine or partially hydrogenated oils are used in any of the internal recipes.
Schulman says the bakery is working with its vendors to address the trans-fat issue. “It is our goal to remove any hydrogenated fats from all ingredients used in our products,” he says.
“No one wants wasted calories,” adds Marchok. “But people do want quality, so we use these great ingredients, and we are consistent.”
One of Eli’s most popular online products is the C-cake, a made-to-order cheesecake that customers create themselves online, choosing their favorite toppings, borders, decorations and even personalized messages. The company decided to expand its market by letting online customers design the cheesecakes to their liking.
Spreading good will
“We’re also sponsoring a new introduction for kids that they can find on smart phones and tablets that serves as a teaching tool,” adds Schulman. “It’s a game where they can create their own cakes, which will tie into the C-cake feature.”
Marchok says the company strives to reach consumers in various ways, whether communicating to them person-to-person, online, on television, via computer, in print or by smartphone. “This app will give children the ability to develop hand coordination and design skills,” she explains.
The idea that those involved in food are becoming rock stars, such as farmers, chefs and bakers, is nothing new to Schulman, who has a way of finding the spotlight and publicity wherever he goes. The company has staged and been a part of many significant events all across the country.
“Marc has really adopted a role of entrepreneurship here,” says Jolene Worthington, vice president of operations. “He’s very involved in agricultural endeavors and has had many friends come and ask him how to get into business and carry things forward for the future.”
In fact, the company gets involved in a lot of community events and projects, which shows how much the role of the chef and baker have changed, Schulman says. “We pride ourselves on being able to socialize, have fun and spread good will, but we also take our business very seriously. Bakers and other food manufacturers as well as farmers are very sophisticated these days; they have lots of technology, education, money, etc. Bakers are into social media. So we see many opportunities to affect change and do good things for the community and the people of Chicago.”
Food safety first
Currently, the bakery is in the process of completing its Safe Quality Food (SQF) Level 2 food-safety training. “We started working on SQF about six months ago,” says Schulman. “The great thing about SQF is that it makes people so responsible. There’s a lot of discipline required, but clearly, the stakes are so high, it has to be the first thing you do every day: Make sure your food is safe.”
Jeff Anderson, the company’s vice president of purchasing and operations, recalls the significant changes involved with the training. “I’ve been in the food business for 20 years and [the Food Safety Management Act] is the biggest change I’ve seen,” he says. “We have been rated by the American Institute of Baking (AIB) International as Superior for many years, and have had numerous GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) audits. But SQF is a whole new world. It changes your perceptions. And everything must be documented, because if you don’t write it down, it might not be considered as being done. All of your policies and procedures have to be documented.”
SQF will be great for everyone at Eli’s in the long term, but has a way of separating the grown-ups from the kids, if you will, Schulman says. “You really have to rethink your operation in terms of allergens and other products, and it makes things very challenging,” he says. “But you can’t say you don’t care. If we achieve our new goals regarding the food-safety standards, we’ll be where we should be to meet anyone’s requirements. We all need to worry about food safety. Clearly, the regulations and initiatives on food safety are driven by customers, too.”
Schulman sees many opportunities for the employees at Eli’s and says he appreciates the staff. “We create jobs and our staff here is very talented,” he says. “Our product development team can take a concept from sales and source the ingredients, develop the product and packaging, commercialize and implement everything and then create it consistently all of the time, which is also why we’re successful.
“We strive to excel at what we make. We perfect things, make them excellent. I think that has to be the driving force. You have to have the resources to do things right these days, and that’s why we are successful and will remain independent for many years to come. We’re proud of our heritage, but really, people are our heritage. I think they go together. When you grow up in this business, you find that it’s the individuals who make the business.”
Next on the table…
Not surprisingly, many exciting projects are in the works at Eli’s. The company plans to expand its facility in 2014 with an addition that will most likely double the size of the bakery, Schulman adds. “We need additional oven capacity and improvement in some areas,” he explains. “Clearly, the facility has done a great job for us, but we need more space. When we designed it, we were fortunate that it’s on a large site that we can expand, so that’s what our team is working on right now.”
The company is also committed to cutting its energy consumption and recycles various materials and food waste. “We want to be just as thoughtful in our expansion,” Schulman says. “In addition, sustainability is a high priority for our customers and for us as well.”
There’s never a dull day at Eli’s. “It’s an exciting time in the baking industry,” Schulman says. “We can sell to very large, sophisticated customers as well as small and mid-sized ones, so we just have to be focused. The number-one priority we have right now is food-safety (training) and quality. There’s so much going on and so many things to do, we just have to be focused on continuing to produce the best products ever.”