Every week a truckload of 50-pound cases of cream cheese arrive at Chicago-based Eli’s Cheesecake Co. This special cultured cream cheese is used to make what customers have proclaimed as “Chicago’s finest” cheesecake.

This spring Eli’s freshened up its product line with new flavors and products that tapped into the portion control trend, including 3-inch round cheesecakes and new mini and handheld pies. The new flavors and products were introduced at the National Restaurant Association show in May. Among the new flavors were Mediterranean Honey Cheesecake with toasted pistachios and almonds, a Chocolate Espresso Cheesecake, a Key Lime Pie Cheesecake and Vanilla Bean Cheesecake.

According to Debbie Marchok, vice president of marketing, the Mediterranean Honey was an “exciting product” to create, especially with Mediterranean being a really hot food right now in restaurants. By creating this flavor, Eli’s hoped to capture some of this popular market. The new flavor was also a twist on what competitors are doing with Greek yogurt, as they try to do a more Mediterranean-style cheesecake, she said.

“This is more true to a Mediterranean-style cheesecake, using the pistachios and use of honey in the cheesecake,” she said.

The company’s entire product line consists of cheesecakes, cakes, tiramisu, pies, tarts, brownies, dessert bars, from pre-packaged to whole cakes, sized from 1-inch square to 10-inch round. It also produces 1,000-pound showcase cheesecakes for special events (including inaugural cakes for President Clinton in 1993 and 1997 and President Obama in 2009 and 2013.)

Eli’s bakery produces more than 15,000 products a day out of its 62,000-square-foot state-of-the-art bakery/retail shop and visitors’ center in Chicago. The cheesecakes and desserts are shipped frozen and are sold worldwide, including Europe, Asia and North and South America. The trade channels include foodservice, retail grocery, convenience stores, home delivery and mail order. The 24/7 bakery in Chicago manufactures 100% of its products. The company is planning to expand its existing Chicago bakery with an additional 40,000 square foot addition in 2014.

Quality dairy ingredients

For the family-owned Eli’s Cheesecake, everything comes down to quality — whether it’s with ingredients, people or products. The company slow-bakes its cheesecake in small batches allowing ingredients to develop to their optimum flavors, which the company boasts is the key to achieving their unique taste and texture.

“Eli’s cheesecake’s structure is similarly delicate in structure to an egg custard dessert (as compared to denser New York-style),” said Jolene Worthington, senior vice president of operations and R&D. “Our cheesecake’s slow emulsification or blend of milk proteins, cultured cream cheese, cultured sour cream, sugar and vanilla, maintains its characteristic creamy consistency by controlling the coagulation of the egg protein through high to low temperatures.”

The company uses a special formulation for its cream cheese; it’s not like what you find in stores, according to Jeff Anderson, vice president of operations.

Worthington explains, “Eli’s uses cultured cream cheese that takes 10 days to naturally process using natural acids before it is shipped to the bakery. Other bakeries use uncultured cream cheese which is processed using additives such as rennet or milk solids,” she said. “To take it one step further, other bakeries use cream cheese blends (blends of cream cheese with processed vegetable fats with trans-fats to lower costs even further).  Since cream cheese should be a primary ingredient in cheesecakes, the better your cream cheese, the better your cheesecake.”

“The functionality of cream cheese in cheesecake baking is critical to our product performance,” said Anderson.

One of the other things that makes Eli’s product unique, according to Marchok, is its signature all-butter shortbread cookie crust. “Traditional cheesecakes are baked on a graham crust,” she said

According to Marchok, the crust is baked first and then the cheesecake is baked, both to a golden brown. The company uses clean-label ingredients, including the special cultured cream cheese, sugar, eggs, cultured sour cream, pure vanilla, salt and no preservatives.

The cheesecake is what Marc Schulman, son of Eli’s Cheesecake founder and Chicago restaurateur Eli Schulman, calls “Chicago-style” — a high profile, firm exterior and very creamy interior.  “One thing my father taught me, taught us, is never to compromise on the quality of the ingredients and the quality of product,” he said. “So we keep on working to make our cakes and the other desserts the best that they can be.”

The company works with over 90 active suppliers, including at least two cream cheese suppliers. Whenever possible the company sources ingredients and supplies locally as part of its mission to support local farmers, vendors and small businesses. Some of the ingredients come from the Northwest, including Oregon where they work with the Sakuma Brothers for fresh fruit. Organic pumpkin is from Stahlbush Island Farms in California and apples are from Michigan.

Eli’s Cheesecake is also a sponsor of The Chicago High School of Agricultural Sciences, one of the only urban high schools in agriculture in the country. The school, along with a local farmer, produces all of the honey used by Eli’s, including that used in the new Mediterranean Honey Cheesecake.

According to Schulman, being charitable and working with local business and groups was something his father instilled in him. It’s an important aspect behind Eli’s as a company. The company, which is right next to the Wright Community College campus in Chicago, also works with the college.

“We sponsor their student café. We donate all the desserts and 100% of the proceeds from the café go to student scholarships,” said Schulman. It’s just another way the company likes to give back to the community.

Mini indulgence

Along with the new flavors introduced in the spring, the company kept up with the portion control trend by introducing Eli’s-to-Go pre-packaged 3-inch-round cheesecakes and square desserts, mini pies and handheld pies. Cuties are 1-inch by 1-inch cut desserts, which continue to grow in popularity, according to Marchok. The line now includes eight flavors, including Raspberry Swirl, Chocolate Swirl and Caramel Flan cheesecakes and Fudge Brownie, Seven Layer, Pecan and Raspberry Macaroon dessert bars.

The growth of the mini dessert category (along with the single-serve trend) inspired Eli’s to continue developing along that product line, according to Marchok. This included introducing the mini and handheld pies.

“People like to treat themselves to dessert, they like to indulge,” said Marchok. “And being able to take an incredibly high-quality dessert and be able to enjoy it and indulge in it in smaller portions is [a] trend that’s continuing to grow.”

The new mini pies feature the same signature crust that Eli’s is known for. But the crust isn’t the only unique thing about the new pies.

“We actually cook our own fruits here in our own kettles. Our apples are phenomenal, they’re made without sulfurs, they’re processed within 24 hours here at our own bakery,” said Marchok. “Because we are so successful with that in our cheesecakes, using fresh fruits, and working with the fruits in our kettles, it was a sort of natural evolution to take these fruits we’re already cooking and use those in the pies.”

Tradition is important

Eli Schulman’s first venture in the restaurant business began in 1940 with the popular Chicago coffee shop Eli’s Ogden Huddle, later followed by Eli’s Stage Delicatessen. In 1966 Schulman opened Eli’s the Place for Steak, a hangout for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Working in the restaurant’s kitchen in the 1970s, Eli created a cheesecake so rich and creamy that customers proclaimed it “Chicago’s finest.” In 1980, Eli’s Cheesecake made its public debut at the Taste of Chicago (America’s largest food festival). Since then, it has grown from a local favorite to one of the country’s largest specialty cheesecake bakeries.

Eli’s Cheesecake is sold at restaurants, resorts and retailers, including Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse, Benvenuto’s Italian Grill, Soldier’s Field, O’Hare Airport, Isle of Capri Casinos, Hyatt, Hilton, Jewel Food Stores, Roundy’s Supermarkets, Mariano’s Fresh Market and Kroger. 

The company celebrated its 33rd birthday at this year’s Taste of Chicago festival. According to Marc Schulman, now president and owner of the company, they always celebrate their birthday at the Taste of Chicago. “We’re the only vendor that’s been there every year since it started in 1980,” he said.

The company has other traditions as well, including a weekly farmer’s market in its parking lot, and a week-long celebration for National Cheesecake Day (which began July 30 this year.)

 “What I think is important, and the great opportunity for us, as a company, as a brand, is that we’re real people who do these things,” said Schulman. “And we’re creative and support our customers, and [we] work to make the best products we can.”