Eli’s Cheesecake formulates with locally produced ingredients. In addition, the bakery aims for clean ingredient labels: There are only six ingredients in its plain cheesecake.
What makes an Eli’s Cheesecake taste good? Is it the ingredients? Is it the manufacturing process? Is it the people that make Eli’s Cheesecakes? Is it the community? Is it the resolute focus on quality?
If you answered all of the above, then you are correct. A lot is required to make an Eli’s Cheesecake taste good and The Eli’s Cheesecake Co. a success. For Marc Schulman, the company’s president, the answer is even simpler than “all of the above.”
“We’ve never lost our focus on customer service and quality,” Schulman says. “We hold ourselves to high standards. And if we maintain our commitment to quality, then there is no doubt our future is bright.”
Eli’s Cheesecake is riding a wave of recent success as consumer preferences and tastes continue to shift toward quality products with clean ingredient labels. This paradigm shift fits perfectly into the company’s strategy of providing consumers with products made with quality, wholesome ingredients you would find in a home kitchen, not a food science laboratory.
To date, this strategy has worked as the company prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary at its modern baking facility in Chicago. The facility opened in October 1996, and marks one of many significant milestones in the company’s history.
Eli Schulman, Marc’s father, entered the food business in the 1940s with an impressive restaurant business in Chicago that reached a high point in 1966 when he opened Eli’s The Place for Steak. It was not until 1980 that the company’s now signature cheesecakes made their debut at the annual, and wildly popular, Taste of Chicago festival.
Setting the stage
It is not surprising that the company introduced its cheesecakes at a large event attended by people from throughout the Midwest, nation and world. The company has a knack for publicity that often puts it in the spotlight, and on stage at many significant events.
| Marc Schulman, president of Eli’s Cheesecake, speaks to a group of visitors who have lunch and a tour at the bakery. Schulman speaks in front of a picture of his father and Eli’s founder, Eli Schulman. |
Bill Clinton has been to the bakery. So has Jay Leno. When Chicago celebrated its 150th anniversary, it did so with an Eli’s Cheesecake. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich celebrated his inauguration with an 800-lb. Eli’s Cheesecake decorated with Illinois symbols, such as the state bird (cardinal) and flower (violet). When Hillary Rodham Clinton celebrated her 50th birthday, she cut into an Eli’s Cheesecake.
The publicity these events garner is great for the bakery, but for Schulman, it’s about more than getting your name in the news. It’s about giving back to the community in any way that the bakery can, such as its efforts to support New Horizon Center for Developmentally Disabled, Wright College, Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
“Our ties to Chicago are very important,” Schulman comments. “We let people in the community experience the brand.”
This unique view of the role of a bakery as more than a provider of food has served the company well. Couple the company’s philosophy with America’s increasing appetite for upscale bakery foods, and it is easy to see why Eli’s Cheesecake is experiencing boom times.
“In our history, we’ve seen the best of times and the worst of times,” Schulman notes. “And right now, it’s definitely the best of times.”
Few bakers can say that same thing. Rapid changes in the baking industry have left many bakers scrambling to change their product lines to satiate fickle consumers. In most cases, this shift has forced bakers either to make their products more healthful or more premium and indulgent. For Eli’s Cheesecake, shifting consumer preferences has little effect on its formulas.
“We’ve always made premium products, but now, people just appreciate them a lot more,” Schulman says. “We’re aligned to where we need to be in the market.”
| Eli’s Cheesecake produces almond and honey rectangle cheesecakes for a national retail chain. After exiting a 70-ft. tunnel oven, these cheesecakes cool on a spiral conveyor for 45 minutes |
The company’s premium products are a testament to many factors, including the ingredients in the formula, and the people and equipment making the products. These factors are what make an Eli’s Cheesecake taste good.
Ingredients make a product, and Eli’s Cheesecake does not cut corners when sourcing ingredients. One of the company’s newest products, an artisan cheesecake, is made from unripened goat cheese combined with Chicago-sourced hand-pressed ricotta. In addition, the goat cheese is farmstead, meaning that the cheese is made on the same farm where the milk is produced.
Although this product will not appear in supermarkets throughout the country, it provides a perfect example of the company’s dedication to using locally produced ingredients of only the highest quality. “There is always the attitude that local is best,” Jolene Worthington, Eli’s Cheesecake’s executive vice president of operations, says. “Why would we get Granny Smith apples from the West Coast when there are great apples just hours away in Michigan?”
Even more local than Michigan-grown apples is the company’s honey supplier. Eli’s purchases its honey from the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, a public school that offers urban students an agribusiness curriculum.
The company’s cream cheese, an integral ingredient in cheesecake formulas, is a proprietary blend made exclusively for Eli’s Cheesecake. Although a commercially available product is less expensive, the company does not strive for an average cheesecake. It aims for the best cheesecake on the market.
| An Eli’s Cheesecake employee sprinkles nuts and nougat topping on cheesecakes. Cheesecakes are decorated as they travel down assembly lines. These decorators are able to master 20 techniques or perform at the highest grade. |
The company’s quest for quality ingredients is matched only by its pursuit to provide clean ingredient labels. “There are only six ingredients in our plain cheesecake, and that’s what gourmet cheesecakes are all about,” Worthington says. “It’s not necessary to cloud up the ingredient list.”
The company’s core ingredients are simple: cream cheese, sugar, sour cream, pure vanilla and a little salt and flour. For its more upscale varieties, the company uses natural fruit systems and does not use artificial flavorings or preservatives.
Quality ingredients will only take a bakery so far. Eli’s Cheesecake understands this and executes the ideal manufacturing practices for its products. The company’s bakery is housed in a 60,000-sq.-ft. building. On the floor, flexibility is a must.
“You must be willing to change and you have to have systems and people that are flexible,” Schulman says. “We don’t think of ourselves as high volume, but we make a lot of cakes.”
To instill the small bakery focus on quality in a facility that combines automation with manual labor, Schulman stresses one simple point.
“Even though we make a lot of cheesecakes, each one has to be heroic,” he states.
Eli’s Cheesecakes does not get wrapped up counting its production by how many thousand cheesecakes the company produces in an hour. Instead, the company focuses on a small batch process, where individual cheesecakes, not runs, receive attention.
The company’s batch process starts in the mixing room, where five planetary mixers produce small batches of cheesecake batter. The company uses planetary mixers to maintain flexibility. The company uses continuous mixers for its regular cake lines.
In an adjacent room to the mixing room, the company operates a small cookie bakery, complete with a sheeting line and press. The company uses these shortbread cookies as crusts in most of its cheesecakes. These unique cookie crusts provide the company with a point of distinction and have become a signature of an Eli’s Cheesecake. Similar to its cheesecakes, the cookie crusts use a simple formula of flour, butter, powdered sugar, egg white and salt.
The company’s cookie crusts and most of its cheesecakes are baked in a 70-ft. tunnel oven. For short run items, the company uses rack ovens.
| Eli’s Cheesecake uses ultrasonic slicers to slice cheesecakes into individual servings. |
Cheesecake depositing and decorating employ a significant amount of flexibility and manual labor. The company employs a series of movable depositors hovering over a circular conveyor to deposit cheesecake batters and fillings. Experienced employees decorate cheesecakes in an assembly line, with cheesecakes traveling down either a straight or u-shaped conveyor. Eli’s decorators aspire to perform at the highest grade or be able to master 20 decorating techniques without variances, Worthington says. The company also employs five specialized pastry chefs to make the company’s toppings and fruit systems.
Management by team
People are the last, but not least, important component to what makes an Eli’s Cheesecake taste good. The company’s management style is by team, which gives the bakery the flexibility to quickly launch products and make decisions, Worthington says.
“We don’t have the typical hierarchy,” she adds. “The traditional structure is not quick enough, nor is it empowering or enterprising.”
The management by team structure exhibits itself best on the plant floor, where even though concrete walls separate the bakery’s various departments, production managers flow freely from department to department. It is not uncommon to see the decorating supervisor positioned at the tunnel oven’s exit discussing the day’s orders with the packaging and production supervisors.
This management philosophy works at Eli’s Cheesecake because the company hires entrepreneurial-minded employees. It also works because the company’s employees are all focused on quality and innovation, regardless of the customer or sales channel. That is why Schulman sees significant opportunities in both the retail and foodservice channels.
“Everyone is talking about quality, in both foodservice and retail,” Schulman adds. “I think we’ve been fortunate because we’ve never based our growth on one channel because over time things change.
Changes in the market are inevitable, and Eli’s Cheesecake is equipped with a flexible management team and bakery to accommodate change. However, the one area where the company takes a rigid stance, quality, also is the one factor that distinguishes the bakery.