Eli’s Christmas charity takes the cake

Employees get to deliver 2 cases of goodness to cause of
their choice


December 18, 2007

BY MARK BROWN Sun-Times Columnist

This is a good time of the year to know somebody who works for The Eli’s Cheesecake Company.

Come to think of it, it’s probably always good to know somebody at Eli’s. But right about now is especially good.

That’s because each of Eli’s 220 employees are given the opportunity during the holiday season to deliver two free cases of cheesecakes to the charitable cause of their choice.

As a result, dozens of local churches, schools, community and civic groups look forward each year to chowing down on this Chicago-made treat at their holiday events. Some aren’t above dropping little reminders.

“Around this time of year, they ask, ‘Are you going to bring the cake?’ ” laughs William Ferebee, 47, an Eli’s packaging foreman who takes his cheesecakes to Victory Outreach, a rehab home at 13th and Cicero where he volunteers his time. “Man, they really love the cake.”

Eli’s supports more than 600 organizations a year with product donations, but company president Marc Schulman said the holiday program is special because it allows his workers to decide for themselves who they want to support and to experience the gratification of making the delivery personally.

“My father always taught me that charity will never bust you,” said Schulman, referring to patriarch Eli Schulman, who started the family restaurant business in 1940, which veered into cheesecake manufacturing after his father’s recipe emerged as one of the hits of the first Taste of Chicago in 1980.

As some of you must have noticed from reading the papers through the years, the elder Schulman also taught his son plenty about the art of promotion, whether it was making cheesecakes available for the now trite bets between politicians over sports championships or feeding the President on Air Force

As best as I can remember, I have always resisted the Schulman siren song, but Marc Schulman discovered my weakness, and no, I’m not referring to the chocolate chip cheesecake. No, not the strawberry either.

Schulman got my attention by picking Southwest Chicago PADS to be the charity that would receive its own personal cheesecake shipment this year. The Marquette Park homeless shelter is run by Sister Therese DelGenio and her dedicated staff, and Schulman knows I like to write about their work.

So I surrendered to the Eli’s public relations machine, which is really just Schulman, and visited the company’s Northwest Side plant to meet some of the employees, who confirm that they look forward to being the bearer of such yummy tidings.

“It’s a great pleasure,” said Robert Henley, 45, a baker from Portage Park, who takes his cheesecakes to Sunday school students at the Living Word Christian Center in Forest Park.

Eleonor Laurea, 51, a North Sider who works in decorating, brings her cheesecakes to her Family Christian Fellowship, a predominately Filipino congregation, for its annual youth gift exchange and Christmas Eve dinner.

“When they saw the cakes, they are so excited,” Laurea said. “They ask, ‘Is there tiramisu?’ Most Filipinos love tiramisu.”

Workers get their fill

I learned, though, that Eli’s employees make a habit of supplying cheesecakes to family and friends year round.

Wendell Deeter, 42, of Albany Park, even finds them a valuable form of barter. Deeter, a mixer, said he once had no money to pay his mechanic, so he asked: “Would you accept a Peanut Butter Reese’s Cake instead?”

“Sounds good to me,” said the mechanic.

There’s a couple reasons Eli’s employees often have a cheesecake handy for such purposes. For one, they receive free cakes at all the big holidays as well as their birthdays, plus they get a 40 percent discount at the company store.

But just as important, after spending all that time making the cheesecakes, the Eli’s employees all told me the last thing they’d want to do is eat one themselves. That’s no reflection on the product, just the nature of the work.

Eli’s has carved out a deserved niche as a Chicago original with a family-owned business that makes a good product and provides much-needed manufacturing jobs. There’s no harm in reminding everyone of that.

“We’re a little guy in a world of giants,” Schulman says unapologetically for his promotional bent. “If you don’t tell your story, who will?”

Who indeed.