The Illinois Restaurant Association (IRA) recently had the opportunity to speak with Eli’s Cheesecake owner Marc Schulman about his years in the industry, his favorite moments in the Taste of Chicago history and what’s new with the IRA Centennial restaurant today.
Eli’s Cheesecake is the only vendor to have been involved with the Taste of Chicago since its inception. What is your favorite thing about this annual food festival?
Of course, celebrating our birthday with Eli’s giant 1,000 pound cheesecake! And, spending five days outside in a t-shirt with my fellow restaurateurs…it’s like food camp. I also like meeting our customers and hearing what they have to say about our product.
Is there a one staple item at the Taste (besides your cheesecake of course!) that you have to get every year?
Robinson’s boneless rib sandwich, corn on the cob, watermelon and pizza. It is so much fun to walk down Columbus and Jackson taking in the crowds and deciding what new item (or old favorite) to sample.
Eli’s has been in the food business for over 70 years -any advice for achieving longevity in the restaurant/hospitality business? Biggest reward, biggest challenge?
It is an inspiring story about what can be achieved in the restaurant business! My dad went into the restaurant business accidentally in 1940 when he found his favorite west side (Ogden & Kedzie) coffee shop had gone out of business. Here we are 74 years later with a great history of achievements—first in the restaurant business, and most recently with Eli’s Stage Delicatessen and Eli’s the Place for Steak, and then my Dad introducing his signature Cheesecake at that first Taste of Chicago on July 4, 1980. Without Taste and without restaurant heritage, we would have never had the opportunity to grow into a national leader in supplying cheesecake and desserts to leading restaurants nationally.
What are the most memorable moments in Eli’s history?
Being with my parents, Eli and Esther, and my wife Maureen, at the Ceremony for Chicago’s 150th Birthday Cake at Taste of Chicago in 1987. When Mayor Washington couldn’t attend at the last minute, Bozo stepped in and read the resolution citing my parents for their contribution to Chicago and for creating the very special cake. We had so many friends of my parents in attendance and a huge crowd for the cake cutting so my parents really saw the success of Eli’s Cheesecake.
You’re known for making some giant cheesecakes around town. What are your thoughts on going for the Guinness Record?
At Taste alone, we sold over 5.2 million slices of Eli’s Cheesecake so that has to be a record in itself. The biggest Cheesecake we ever created was for Bill Clinton’s first inaugural in Washington DC in 1993. That Cake weighed over 2,000 lbs. and was red, white and “Bill” in honor of the new President.
What other exciting things does Eli’s have happening this year?
We turned National Cheesecake Day into a week of celebrations from July 30th to August 2nd. We travel around the City in our Cheesecake Mobile bringing slices to the staff and families at Lurie Children’s Hospital (on the former site of Eli’s the Place for Steak) and right across the street at Seneca Park and the Eli M. Schulman Playground. We also host a Classic Car Show at Eli’s Cheesecake with over 200 entries benefitting the New Horizons Center and have a “Meet the Maker” Day at our Thursday Farmers Market profiling the great local suppliers who make our cheesecakes and desserts so great. We also just introduced Eli’s Vegan Cheesecake with Tofu from Phoenix Bean on the north side of Chicago.
To read the interview on the IRA website, click here.