Just desserts

Eli’s Cheesecake serves up sweet, sweet amusement

Deena Bustillo

Issue date: 5/4/06
The big cheese(cake):   Want your own hair net and a sample of Eli's cheesecake? Call the factory before it's too late; downtown tours are booked through December.

Media Credit: Courtesy of Eli’s Cheesecake
The big cheese(cake): Want your own hair net and a sample of Eli’s cheesecake? Call the factory before it’s too late; downtown tours are booked through December.

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Holiday cooking in most families is a fiasco, especially at my house. At Christmas dinner, out of the nine people at the table, there is a vegetarian, a diabetic, a no fat/cholesterol dieter, a gourmet food aficionado, a strictly “meat ‘n’ potatoes”-eater, and a 16-year-old that still refuses to eat vegetables. Accordingly, dessert is almost out of the question. The dishes, drama and ensuing headaches in the kitchen make everyone glad these are yearly family functions.

This one-shot baking extravaganza pales in comparison to the production that occurs at The Eli’s Cheesecake Company, 6701 W. Forest Preserve Dr., every day. Eli’s makes 22,000 cheesecakes daily during the holidays and 12,000 otherwise to fill the orders of customers with different tastes and demands in all 50 states and around the world. They even hand-wash every pan. This feat is so impressive that factory tours are already booked through the summer and reservations are being made into December, says Korey Grace, who handles reception and tours at Eli’s.

Up to 1,000 guests per month take the Eli’s Cheesecake World Bakery Tours, Grace says. The numbers add up fast, as Eli’s has given tours to as many as 150 guests in a single day. The volume of visitors might stem from the fact the tour is ranked number one by Food Network’s “Top 5 Tasty Tours.”

Eli’s has tours for both large and small groups. For parties of nine or fewer, the cheesecake-decorating tour allows visitors to adorn their own cheesecake to take home after the factory tour. For parties of more than 10, there are tours like “Be a Star” that let tourists take part in the Quality Star taste test. They sample a variety of flavors and get a commemorative T-shirt to take home.

If the long reservation wait is unappealing, the “Sneak Peek” drop-in tour is given at 1 p.m. Monday through Friday, and you don’t need to book ahead. For $3, visitors are given the factory tour and get to eat a slice of cheesecake at the end. You must wear closed-toed, low-heel shoes while on the tour.

Each tour allows salivating guests to walk right through the many stages of production, during which mechanics and fun facts about cheesecake are divulged. First, though, each person must put on a hairnet then pose for a glamorous group photo that will be posted on the Eli’s Web site later in the week.

First, an introductory video highlights a 2,000-pound cheesecake Eli’s made for Bill Clinton’s second Inaugural Ball. It served 10,000 guests and took 35 hours to assemble after it traveled on a flatbed to Washington. A two-handed saw was used to cut through it. Eli’s also makes cheesecake for the Taste of Chicago every July, and a special planning team is already beginning preparation for this year.

After the video, guests are led to the kitchen, which has been bustling since 4 a.m., churning the batter to make 12 different flavors of cheesecake (along with an assortment of other cakes, cookies and cobblers). The area looks like an enormous metal playground of cooking equipment. Along with 500-pound batter bowls, there is a 24-foot spiral cooling rack – as tall as a 2-story building – that blows cold air over the cheesecakes after they’re baked. The “small” ovens can bake 2,000 pounds at a time, which, if you’re wondering, if more than enough to stock your local Starbuck’s – several times over.

The cheesecakes are Kosher and made with all-natural ingredients whose volume puts Sam’s Club to shame. Eli’s uses 2,500-pound bags of sugar, 2,000-pound containers of eggs and 50-pound blocks of cream cheese. The most expensive ingredient is pure vanilla from Madagascar, which costs $100 per gallon.

Next, visitors get a peek at the decorating room, where 35 decorators are split into two lines to hand-adorn the desserts. Depending on the design intricacy, between seven and 120 cakes can be finished per hour. Every decorator has culinary training and knows how to decorate 100 different kinds of dessert, as the rotation changes daily.

After smelling cheesecake for half an hour, guests finally get to eat a slice (picked from about five varieties pre-cut in the Dessert Cafe). Eli’s makes more than 50 varieties of cheesecake, though, ranging from Original Plain, to Tira Mi Su and Lemon Mixed Berry.

The cafe has freezers of cheesecake to purchase or ship home. There is also a section called “Sweet Imperfections,” desserts with design flaws – a crack or dent – that are discounted 50 percent. The aesthetics are a little off, but the flavor’s the same.

If you just want a piece or whole cheesecake, Eli’s Dessert Cafe is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. To book a tour, call (773) 736-3417. For more information on tours and ordering, visit www.elischeesecake.com.

Medill sophomore Deena Bustillo is a PLAY assistant editor. She can be reached at d-bustillo@northwestern.edu.