July 26, 2013

Entrepreneur Spotlight – Charlie’s Famous Cheesecakes & More

charlies famous cheesecakesI can’t lie; cheesecake ranks up there as one of my top 5 five favorite desserts.  Not just any cheesecake though – flavorless cheesecake that sits in your gut like a lead weight is a waste of a cheesecake eating opportunity.  If you’re going to each cheesecake it should be creamy, smooth, and have just the right balance of density and air.  When I learned that Charla Trusty’s company, Charlie’s Famous Cheesecakes & More, met all those requirements with an added Southern spin I knew I had to know more!

Charla Trusty is the Charlie in her company’s name.  Nicknamed Charlie by friends and family, she is a proud born-and-bred Southerner with acharlie4 beautifully thick accent that made this Pacific Northwesterner think of warm, lazy summer days.  Lazy though is the last adjective you’d use to describe Charlie.  She started her company back in 2007 after making cheesecakes for 30-40 for coworkers’ Christmas gifts.  But that’s the middle of the story; let’s step back for a minute…

Taking A Bite Of The Big Apple

Charlie grew up in Arkansas where, at the time, cheesecake was “like the Jell-O cheesecake you could buy from the store.”  Charlie didn’t know that any other type of cheesecake existed (keep in mind that this was in the 70’s so nationwide distribution and the internet were still a ways off yet!).  In the 80’s Charlie had the opportunity to visit New York for the first time and the cheesecakes she saw during her trip were so different from anything she was used to that she just had to give them a try.

“We tried a real cheesecake and I just fell in love with it,” Charlie remembers.  “When I got back home I tried to find recipes but couldn’t find anything (again, still no internet) so I just experimented.”

Finally Charlie nailed the cheesecake recipe and it was reminiscent of what she’d had in New York.  Eagerly she shared it with friends but the response she got was just lukewarm.  “No one really loved the cheesecakes because they weren’t sweet enough,” Charlie says.  If you’re reading this article from another country it’s worthwhile to note that various regions in the US have very distinct flavors and specialties.  The US South in particular is known for things like their sweet tea (a highly sweetened version of ice tea) and rich cakes so the New York-style cheesecakes weren’t cutting it taste-wise with a Southern audience.

Charlie took that feedback and went back into the kitchen to tinker some more and eventually emerged with a sweeter version of the classic New York-style cheesecake along with a graham cracker crust “with lots of butter.”  Now she had a hit on her hands and friends were soon clamoring for her to make her cheesecakes.  In fact, that’s how she ended up making 30-40 for coworkers!

cheesecake entrepreneurAt that time Charlie was living in Texas so, in 2007, she started her one-woman cheesecake company in the back of a fudge shop as a side job while she worked in television.  A
few years later she and her kids moved to Fayetteville Arkansas, the home of the University of Arkansas.  Like any college town, the town as a whole is young and highly educated but even amongst those who had traveled extensively, Charlie’s “Sweet Southern Cheesecakes,” as she calls them, soon garnered a following for their uniquely Southern taste.

Unlike some of the other entrepreneurs we’ve featured on this site, Charlie’s Famous Cheesecakes (and now other products like brownies as well) are mainly sold wholesale into area coffee shops.  While she’d love to be able to ship her products around the country, she hasn’t yet figured out a viable and economical way to do that without charging an astronomical amount of shipping.

Originally Charlie didn’t even think wholesale would be the channel she used to sell but the coffee shops keep her so busy that she finds herself at the crossroads of needing to hire more people in order to grow.  In part this is because Charlie puts a very high premium on making sure that each cheesecake or other product is made in true small batches in the wholesale bakery that Charlie opened about 7 months ago when she decided to work full-time on the business.  By this ‘small batch’ I mean that Charlie literally makes one cheesecake at a time instead of mixing a bunch of cheesecake batter together in one larger batch.  Charlie believes that this provides her products with better texture and, thus, better flavor overall.  Her customers notice the difference and it was based on their recommendations that Charlie added the “& More” part of her company name as she now also sells cupcakes, brownies, and other sweet delectables too.

Keeping All The Customers Front And Center

Because Charlie’s business is mostly wholesale, in her mind she has two sets of customers.  She has the end customer – the person who charlies3purchases the slice of cheesecake at the coffee shop – but she also has the managers and employees of the coffee shops themselves with whom she works hard to build genuine relationships.  Charlie tries to ensure that her coffee shops don’t directly compete with one another by offering a different selection of items in each store.  When approaching a potential new account she will take samples of some of her bestselling products but she does try to cater the product mix and flavors to each store’s individual needs and individual customer base.

While some of her bigger, more high-volume shops have a standing delivery order with her which enables her to do some production forecasting, Charlie is happy to revise orders or tweak flavor combinations based on a coffee shop’s specific sales and feedback.  This is especially critical because, like any college town, her stores do experience seasonal fluctuations in sales as students leave for the summer or go away during school breaks.  Charlie even performs all the delivery herself, in her car with its Charlie’s Famous Cheesecake placard, which gives her a chance to talk with the managers and employees, answer questions, and make sure her product is looking good in their display cases.  Charlie believes that it’s important for her to work in concert with the coffee shop managers to ensure that they are all benefiting from their relationship while also providing the end consumer the best possible product.

Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, Charlie’s Famous “Sweet Southern” Cheesecakes are not available for shipping but you can drool over the online pictures here or check out some other “Sweet Southern” goodie recipes on the company’s Facebook page.

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