The Eli’s Cheesecake legacy thrives.
Marc Schulman is the ultimate Chicago food industry veteran. He’s perhaps the largest cream cheese buyer this side of the Mississippi (a must if you’re going to churn out 15,000 cheesecakes a day). And having a knack for mass production with a heart as big as the giant slice of cheesecake I couldn’t help but indulge in during our interview, Mr. Schulman is one of my all-time favorite foodies.
How did Eli’s Cheesecake begin?
It was the dream of my father, Eli Schulman, who started with Eli’s The Place For Steak, a steakhouse on Chicago Avenue. He was a great restaurateur/host, but he always dreamt of creating a signature dish that could be sold outside the restaurant. It was at the first Taste of Chicago where Eli’s Cheesecake made its debut. We then evolved into an independent company and, over time, grew as both our distributions and product offerings grew.
How many cheesecakes do you sell a day?
About 15,000. So we have about 200,000-300,000 servings daily. It adds up. And the distribution could go as far as Russia and Saudi Arabia; we do a lot of big business in London.
What’s the key to continued success?
Growing up in a family that was really passionate about quality and service, it’s about serving our customers – working with them and being creative. Also, growing up in the restaurant business you become very appreciative of the dishwasher and bus boy. We try to run a business where everyone is really important.
You’re very popular among local celebrities, too!
In 1985 when the Bears went to the Super Bowl, Harold Washington said, ‘We have Chicago hot hogs, deep dish pizza and Eli’s Cheesecake.’ And it was the first time we became national. So it’s been a lot of fun. We’ve also done the mayor’s birthday cake for him for the last three years.
Favorite part of your job?
Seeing customers, talking about my dad and his heritage. I wear the watch Frank Sinatra gave him. It’s a great legacy. My dad, a child of immigrants, was born in 1910. Here we are 103 years later telling his story, and I get to work with really smart, dedicated people.
Who inspires you?
My parents and the people I work with. And great people in my life like [former] Governor James Thompson and Tony Valukas, whom I worked for as a lawyer. I’ve been very fortunate. Chicago’s a great place; people cheer you on.
Best advice you’ve received?
A few things that had to deal with cash flow. I forgot what the saying is, something like, ‘Cash is more important than your mother.’ I don’t know that I’d put it at that level, but I think businesses work when you’re in it for the long-term. And, too often, we look at businesses very transactionally. You’re going to have good years and bad ones, but the question is ‘will you be long-term?’
Favorite hidden gem?
Growing up, my dad worked six days a week. But then one night Richard J. Daley came in and he wasn’t here, so he then worked seven days. Whenever we did go out, we always went to Kow Kow Restaurant in Lincolnwood.
Craziest customer experience?
We’ve had people drive a day, overnight, to get cheesecake or come for our sales. We’ve had some incredible fans.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Crain’s Chicago Business just featured the 23rd anniversary of ‘40 under 40,’ and I was in the first group, which had Oprah Winfrey, David Axelrod, John Rogers, Linda Johnson Rice and me. I was doing the same thing I was doing 23 years ago. So I hope I’m doing the same thing I’m doing now.
John Reilly Photograph