The Sweet Business of Cheesecakes
December 4, 2007
By Jane Ayer
Carole’s Cheesecake Company adjusts with the times.
It all began in 1972, when Michael Ogus worked as an architect on a building on Toronto’s Bloor Street. His client, a restaurateur, mentioned he was looking for someone in the city who made good cheesecake; Michael, in good husbandly fashion, immediately thought of his wife Carole. Although she worked as an elementary school teacher, Carole’s passion outside of the classroom was baking.
Always up for a challenge, Carole set to work. The restaurant owner was very clear about what he wanted; a delicious, pre-portioned New York-style cheesecake he could keep in his freezer. Check. It obviously couldn’t taste frozen when his customers placed it in their mouths. Check. The cheesecake needed to be a worthy way for his clients to cap off their dining experience. Check. Carole’s solution to the problem of a graham wafer crust made soggy from defrosting? Get rid of it. Her “topless, bottomless,” cheesecakes took off, and soon others in the restaurant business were placing orders. Eventually the demands of the cheesecake “hobby” were too great and Carole left teaching to put all of her energy into Carole’s Cheesecake Company. Thirty-some years later, the business, now located on Castlefield Road in Toronto, has grown to more than 30 employees who make thousands of pieces of cheesecakes, cakes, squares and bars each day. Its clients include Sobeys, Pusateri’s, Whole Foods and other specialty food stores, along with many restaurants and coffee shops. One of Carole’s biggest clients is a chain of international coffee shops; the cake company supplies a multitude of mini cheesecakes and bars to the organization’s Eastern Canadian locations.
The key to keeping these customers?
“You have to remember that you’re really dealing with one customer at a time and this is often lost in the commercial world,” says Michael. “You can’t ever lose sight of the customer.”
He says that’s one of the strengths of being a smaller business: the ability to develop a real relationship with customers and respond to what they want. The 14-lb. New York-style cheesecake is a prime example. A customer wanted a cake they could divide into 14 pieces and sell in one-pound slices. Michael and Carole’s response? No problem. The result is a monster of a cheesecake that takes six hours to bake and needs 24 hours to rest before it can be sliced. Working out the mechanics for baking such a cake was just up Michael’s alley, who designed the cake pan needed for baking such a large cake. When he retired from his work as an architect in the 90s, he went to work with Carole.
“He’s the numbers guy,” says Carole.
He’s also a soup guy, and loves to cook. A small retail café at the front of Carole’s production area is a showcase for Michael’s many soups and sandwiches. Customers can order individual frozen portions of the soup to keep in their fridge or freezers.
“I often say to Michael that maybe in the next lifetime we could get into soups too,” says Carole.
The company also makes a line of low-fat salad dressings, which won a Canadian Fine Food Award in 1996.
Aside from being an opportunity for Michael to showcase his culinary skills, the retail café is also a chance for Carole to see people enjoying her cheesecakes and a way to get feedback on the cakes themselves.
“A lot of our new product flavours are generated by customers and what they want; it’s much easier to grow with customer demands,” says Carole.
Most recently, her customers have been commenting on the low-carb, diabetic cakes Carole and Michael spent two years developing. Sweetened with xylitol, the cakes now account for about 15 per cent of the company’s business. And customers were so interested in xylitol that Carole’s now packages and sells the sweetener by itself in the café.
Despite generating thousands of cakes a day, the operation is still very much a hands-on one. One employee spends her days doing nothing but peeling, coring and slicing apples. All of the cakes and bars are sliced, topped, iced, and packaged by hand. The company makes over 100 different flavours of cheesecakes (the New York-style is the most popular, says Carole, along with anything chocolate) and 25 different kinds of other cakes, along with numerous types of squares. The business is Kosher-certified, Halal-certified, HACCP-certified, and CFIA-certified.
That commitment to quality has brought many accolades and articles over the years, many of which are showcased on the café’s walls in frames with maroon matting. Nelly Furtado has popped in to pick up a cheesecake. Liza Minelli and Bill Cosby have both treated themselves to a piece or two (or many). A framed, signed picture of John Candy reads, “As you can see, I love your cheesecake.”
Despite the accolades, Carole’s Cheesecake Company went through some difficult times during the recession in the 90s. The company’s focus at the time was on retail franchises and Carole’s had 19 locations in malls around Toronto. When those franchises closed, the company refocused on the wholesale aspect of its business, although three cafés in the GTA are licensees, and sell Carole’s cheesecakes at their cafés.
What does the future hold? Carole and Michael say they’re not sure, but that they will adapt and grow with whatever may come. Considering past history and their combined energy and creativity, one can’t help but believe them.
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