Embracing the oxymoron

by Joanie Spencer
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The idea of a vegan cheesecake might cause some head-scratching…it also causes heads to turn, according to The Eli’s Cheesecake Co., Chicago, which launched its signature vegan cheesecake at the National Restaurant Association (NRA) show in Chicago last May and the International Dairy-Deli-Bakery Association (IDDBA)’s trade show in June.

The new product was the brainchild of Maureen Schulman, Eli’s head of publicity and co-owner. The light bulb illuminated for Ms. Schulman after she had received a number of celebrity requests with special dietary needs. “She also has a keen sense of cutting-edge dessert trends,” said Debbie Marchok, vice-president of marketing. “It is targeted to reach vegans, along with people who need dairy-free, egg-free or cholesterol-free desserts.”

Developing the line was a huge education process. “We had to learn more than just about delivering a vegan product; the processing agents had to be vegan, as well,” said Laurie Boger, Eli’s executive pastry chef, of the dessert’s ingredients, such as locally sourced soft tofu, vegan-certified sugar and vegan cream cheese, which was also featured at the IDDBA show.

During the roughly eight-month development process, Eli’s experimented with various flavors and textures in order to perfect the taste and keep the creamy texture that Eli’s Cheesecake is known for. With layered desserts being a hot current trend, the company combined the new cheesecake with vegan cake. “We selected the most popular cakes and flavors that translated well with the vegan cheesecake ingredients,” Ms. Marchok said.

Layering also creates an opportunity to develop multiple textures and flavor combinations. The initial launch includes Belgian Chocolate and Carrot Cake cheesecakes, and two additional flavors will be rolled out soon.

The products are sold in both supermarket foodservice and self-serve. For the in-store service case, a 1/8 tray can be cut and sold by the slice, and for self-serve, Eli’s sells a 7-in. custom dome. Suggested retail price for slices ranges from $1.50 to $5.99, depending on the cut. Prices for the domes range from $14.99 to $16.99.

For a company that sells a dairy-based product line, developing a vegan product is a huge step — even a risky one at that. But Eli’s is up to the challenge. “We’re a cheesecake company,” Ms. Boger said. “We’re excited to embrace the oxymoron.”

Prior to launching at NRA and IDDBA, Eli’s tested the product at the Eli’s Bakery Cafe at its Chicago headquarters and also in Mariano’s Markets in the Chicago area. “We received an overwhelming positive response and expect great sales and happy customers,” Ms. Marchok noted.   

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