Eli’s Cheesecake…You Can
Have Your Agriculture and Eat It Too!

By Elaine Stock,
Special Feature Writer

 

 

Eli’s cheesecakes are slowly baked to a golden brown in a
70 ft long and 12 ft wide tunnel oven.

Cheesecake lovers savor the taste of the gourmet cheesecakes made by hand at Eli’s Cheesecake Co. The taste just doesn’t happen by chance. A great amount of attention is paid to selecting the finest ingredients to create a quality dessert item. The same attention to detail comes into play as Eli’s strengthens its commitment to charity and education, particularly agricultural education.

Eli Schulman entered the food industry in 1940 when he opened his first restaurant, Eli’s Ogden Huddle on Chicago’s west side. In 1966, he opened Eli’s The Place for Steak. The restaurant owner had a knack for taking exceptional care of his customers. He earned the reputation for serving a high quality dinner, using the finest of ingredients.

Eli was certain the meals he served were top of the line; however, he wasn’t satisfied with his selection of desserts. As a result, he experimented with a cheesecake recipe and created what is known today as Eli’s Cheesecake. “My dad was looking for the perfect dessert to compliment his meals,” explained his son, Marc, who took over leadership of the business after his father’s death.

“He was an innovator in food trends. It was his goal to create his own dessert,” Schulman said. On July 4, 1980, the then 70-year-old cheesecake creator debuted the unique Chicago-style cheesecake at the first Taste of Chicago. “Eli’s cheesecake is richer and creamier than traditional cheesecake,” Schulman explained. “It has a different taste, texture, and profile than the New York-style cheesecake.

Eli’s Cheesecake is now housed in a modern, state-of-the-art building constructed on the northwest side of Chicago in 1996. From this facility, more than 200,000 portion servings of various desserts are produced daily and marketed across the U.S. and internationally. A vast amount of agricultural products are used to create Eli’s Cheesecake. The basic ingredients include: cream cheese, sugar, eggs, sour cream, pure vanilla, and salt. Eli’s uses five million pounds of cream cheese on an annual basis.

Schulman said his father had a great reputation for his hospitality. As a result, he entertained many celebrities at this classic steakhouse. The elder Schulman developed a very close relationship with WGN farm broadcaster Orion Samuelson. It was that friendship which put the Schulman family on quite an educational journey. “Dad believed in life-long learning,” Schulman said. “He had a great passion for food, and he had a great passion for education.”

Many students and organizations have benefited from Schulman’s passions. The younger Schulman is determined to keep alive his father’s legacy. “My father’s first interest was to have me get an education,” Schulman explained. He practiced law for five years before joining the food industry to carry on his father’s visions. “I wanted to take my father’s dream to the next level,” Schulman added.

 

Students from Chicago High School for Agricultural
Sciences sample Eli’s Wildflower Honey Bar at a Starbucks on Michigan Avenue.
The dessert was made using honey produced by the students at the
school.

Schulman said Eli’s was in the agriculture business and, reinforcing the
Schulman family’s commitment to education, the younger Schulman has been very
active in agriculture education for approximately the past eighteen years. He
co-chairs the advisory board for the Chicago High School for Agricultural
Sciences (CHSAS). “There are a lot of kids in the Chicago public high school
system,” Schulman said. “There is only one ag school with 600 students focusing
on agriculture. It’s great to be involved. We have an interest in food and
dairy. I’m seeing what great opportunities exist in an urban ag education.”

Eli’s has partnered with the CHSAS to develop the Wildflower Honey Bar. The
cheesecake company buys honey raised on the school’s bee farm to use in its
newest product which is marketed through Starbucks.

His agriculture involvement carries over to participation in the Summer Ag
Institute (SAI), sponsored by the Cook County Farm Bureau. For more than five
years, Eli’s has served as a tour site for teachers attending SAI. “Ag education
is so important,” Schulman said. “The kids get it. It is the sometimes the
hardest to explain to adults why agriculture education is so important.”

During the summer, Eli’s also co-sponsors a weekly Farmer’s Market with
Wright College on its property and partners in a Summer Sustainable Agriculture
Entrepreneurship Program for CHSAS students with Wright College, the Department
of Natural Resources at the Colleges of ACES at UIUC and the University of
Illinois Extension.

Getting involved in ag education is just one way Eli’s is involved in the
community. The family-owned company is dedicated to giving back to the community
in other ways. Each holiday, Eli’s associates participate in the Eli’s Giving
Tree Program by personally delivering Eli’s desserts to a charitable group of
their choice. As a company, Eli’s supports over 500 organizations each year with
donations of desserts for events or as prizes for auctions and other fundraising
events.

Schulman feels one of the greatest gifts his father gave him was the gift of
education. He attributes the company’s direct tie to agriculture and his
family’s friendship to Orion Samuelson, Chicago’s voice of agriculture, as the
main reasons for Eli’s interest in ag education. Schulman realizes that
opportunities in agriculture are about as varied as the flavor choices available
to their customers.

Eli’s Cheesecake President said business is steady year round, with the mail
order portion of the business being the heaviest around holiday time. Last year,
Eli’s The Place for Steak closed to make room for Northwestern Memorial
Hospital’s planned addition. The family is looking for a location on or near
Michigan Avenue to bring back the restaurant. In the meantime, focus will remain
on the bakery portion of the family business, which includes a dessert café and
tourism center, which was named the top food tour in the country by “Top 5″ on
the Food Network.

Eli’s is valuable to agriculture in Cook County. Not only is it a user of
agriculture commodities, but it is dedicated to helping reach as many people as
possible with agriculture education efforts.