Eli's Cheesecake Co. President Marc Schulman sums up the company's success in one word…quality.
Chicago-based Eli's focuses on slow food and small batch production, and uses locally-grown and high-quality natural ingredients. Slow food focuses on authentic, traditional flavors, use of high quality natural ingredients and an awareness of ingredient origins. The slow food movement and the idea of sustainability are the inspiration behind Eli's push toward quality. Keeping with these values, its sour cream and pan coatings are non-genetically modified, and the cheesecakes are created with natural ingredients, such as real cream cheese, vanilla, eggs and butter.
In addition, Eli's uses regional ingredients from local farms and producers, including raspberries, blackberries and wild blueberries from Michigan. All fruits are processed into fillings and slurries in-house, including apples, which arrive fresh and are processed immediately. The apples are sulfite- and preservative-free, and have a clean, fresh flavor. Bakers bake the crisp, all-butter cookie crusts during the night, so they are ready fresh in the morning. Cheesecakes are hand decorated to ensure high quality. “All the fruit on the cheesecake tarts are placed by hand. The tarts are decorated before they are baked, and the cheesecakes are decorated after they are baked,” says Sarah Duff Zupancic, marketing manager. Each batch produces 220 cakes, which are frozen directly off the line. The cakes have a shelf life of five to seven days under refrigeration or six months frozen. One of the ways Eli's maintains quality is by housing all its operations and employees at one central location.
Eli's cheesecake was introduced in the mid-70s when Eli Schulman created the dessert for his restaurant Eli's the Place for Steak. The cheesecake made a more public debut at the Taste of Chicago on July 4, 1980. In 1984, the wholesale business, Eli's Cheesecake Co., was established.
The first two cheesecakes created by Eli's were the original and the chocolate chip cheesecake. Today it offers more than 60 varieties and produces about 20,000 cheesecakes per day. Cheesecake Couture, Eli's newest line, features four varieties: Saigon Cinnamon Chocolate, Blood Orange Champagne, Burnt Caramel Cheesecake Flan and Triple Fresh Cheese, which is made from three cheeses.
Holiday-themed cheesecakes, seasonal cheesecakes and trendy flavors always prove to be popular sellers.
Eli's recently created a Touchdown cheesecake, which it showcased on the Home Shopping Network's Super Bowl program. The cheesecake features a cookie crust, caramel cheesecake filling, and chunks of caramel and peanuts, with a bittersweet chocolate glaze and chocolate covered peanuts and pretzels on top. With so many flavors to choose from, consumers want to try the different options before buying just one flavor, says Marchok, vice president of marketing. As a result, sampler cakes that offer three different slice varieties have grown in popularity.
Still, despite its long list of flavors, Eli's best selling cheesecake remains the original, Schulman says. “The 10-in. white chocolate raspberry, the 10-in. turtle and the chocolate chip are also very popular.” Of the Couture line, the Burnt Caramel Cheesecake Flan is the most popular.
When the company began, cheesecakes came in 9-in. and 6-in. varieties. Today, a range of options and sizes are available. Nonetheless, Eli's focus is on cheesecake quality rather than the size of the pie. “It used to be cheesecake was a belly stuffer; that has changed,” Schulman says. Still, he doesn't think big desserts are going away.
The demand for small desserts and unique presentations has, however, increased. To fit this trend, Eli's offers bite-size cheesecake pieces, Dippers (chocolate-covered cheesecake on a stick) and Cheesecake Shooters, (cheesecake in Eli's shot glasses). “There are many different types driving the market,” Schulman says.
Other trends include premium cheesecakes and desserts for two, such as Eli's heart-shaped Valentine's Day cheesecake. In addition to quality, price also drives cheesecake decisions. “As more customers today are on a budget, they are looking for an inexpensive dessert,” Schulman says. But don't expect consumers to forgo cheesecake completely. “In tough economic times, people eat dessert more. They want to find something they can celebrate and enjoy,” Schulman adds.
The superfruit trend is spreading to cheesecakes as well. Eli's is experimenting with trendy flavors, such as pomegranate, noni juice and açai, with the intention of developing flavor profiles for use in cheesecakes. “We are always looking at new flavor and ingredient trends, especially for our Cheesecake Couture line,” says Zupancic. “[Superfruits'] bright flavors are a terrific foil for the rich cheesecake batter,” she adds.
Chocolate continues to be another flavor trend, thanks to its healthful benefits. “Over half our products are made with chocolate or have chocolate in them,” Marchok says.
Eli's, like Starbucks who they supply with a chocolate caramel brownie, is focusing on the origins of chocolate, which fits into the slow food movement and ingredient awareness, Zupancic says. “Consumers' palates are becoming more sophisticated and they realize the origin of an ingredient can greatly impact its flavor. Our customers care where our ingredients come from. We're able to tell the story of our products because we know where our ingredients are produced and who makes them.”
Eli's Chocolate Flourless Cake uses Schokinag chocolate from Germany. Eli's also is sourcing new chocolates from around the world, including Holland, Africa, Guatemala and the United States. The company also is working on pairing chocolate with various flavors. Its Saigon Cinnamon Chocolate Cheesecake also offers high cocoa content. Its cinnamon is distinctive as well. Also known as Vietnamese cinnamon, Saigon cinnamon has a higher oil content than other types and a powerful flavor. Because of trade restrictions on Vietnamese exports, Saigon cinnamon was unavailable to the United States for almost 20 years, until the beginning of the 21st century. Spice House in Chicago supplies Eli's with its freshly ground Saigon cinnamon.
Eli's has a strong partnership with schools in the Chicago area. For more than 20 years, Eli's has partnered with Wright College, one of the city colleges of Chicago, and the Chicago High School for Agriculture Sciences (CHSAS). Eli's offers a summer program, which has included themes such as the harvesting of honey, energy conservation and local food systems. Eli's uses urban honey from CHSAS in its honey, almond cheesecake for Valentine's Day. During the summer, Wright, CHSAS and Eli's co-sponsor a summer sustainable agricultural entrepreneurship program for students at CHSAS with the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois at Champaign — Urbana. It includes an Eli's/Wright farmers market held in Eli's parking lot.
“It was a belief of our founder Eli Schulman that education should be life long, and that we should encourage ongoing education for our people and for young people in the food industry,” Schulman says.
Top 10 RFG cheesecake choices
|Brands||Dollar Sales||Dollar Sales % Chg YAgo||Dollar Share||Unit Sales||Unit Sales % Chg YAgo||Unit Share|
|THE FATHERS TABLE||30,917,840||-5.2||31.3||4,623,561||-7.7||33.4|
|Source: Information Resources Inc. statistics for the 52-week period ended December 2, 2007.|
|Fresh Bakery Products||52 Weeks Ending Dec. 2 Dollar Sales||% Change Prior Year||52 Weeks Ending Dec. 2 Unit Sales||% Prior Change Year|
|Cakes (excl snack/coffee)||678,576,576||-2.5||134,271,648||-4.7|
|Pies (excl Snack Pies)||209,280,592||-7.1||48,546,104||-9.7|
|Frozen Bakery Products|
|Bread/Biscuits/Pastry Dough||$497,345,472||1.6||$ 200,251,680||0.1|
|Sweetgoods (excl cheesecakes)||203,823,568||-||55,704,908||-2.7|
|Refrigerated Bakery Products|
|Cookie/Brownie Dough||$394,952,224||-8.1||$ 141,254,400||-9.7|
|Cakes (excl Snack/Coffee)||70,357,016||6.1||9,280,588||9.5|
|Pies (excl Snack Pies)||26,515,732||-5.3||5,093,062||-7.5|
|ADG January 3, 2008|
Statistics for this chart were supplied by Information Resources Inc., a Chicago-based firm. Its scanner data covers more than 11,300 supermarkets and represents 90% of all supermarket volumes.