Charlie Major Interview
(Charlie's Cheesecake Works)
Charlie’s Cheesecake Works was founded in San Jose, California in 2002, to produce a line of Top Quality all natural cheesecakes for area restaurants and hotels.
From just one hotel and one restaurant their customer list grew to over 35 hotels, restaurants and coffee houses in the greater San Francisco Bay Area.
Charlie Major, the owner of Charlie’s Cheesecake Works has quite an informative and inspirational story to tell.
Q – Charlie, what were you doing prior to 2002?
A – I was actually in High Tech here in Silicon Valley.
Q – So your job ended then?
A – I was down sized how’s that?
Q – Alright.
A – I was told one day, actually on my birthday; they called me in and said we’ve decided to eliminate your position. I was Director Of Operations which means all of manufacturing and all of materials was my responsibility for about 175 people in a local manufacturing co. here. They just decided they didn’t need me anymore and so that was it. It was my 1st experience with being down-sized or laid off or whatever you call it. I’ve actually worked since I was 12 years old. I grew up in a family-owned machine shop actually, so, I’ve always worked. So, I’ve never ever been down-sized. So, I was pretty devastated.
Q – How much time went by after losing your job and opening up Cheesecake Works?
A – About 6 months. The first decision I made was to never be in that position again. I had to own my own business. That was the first decision we made. I kind of just sat and talked to my wife and said, ‘This is horrible that they could do this. I had absolutely no inkling that they were even thinking about that’. You know times are tough and you’re doing what you can and all of a sudden someone says ‘By the way, we’ve decided to eliminate your position’. You go, ‘You do what’? ‘Who’s running manufacturing? Who’s running materials? Who’s running all that stuff’? And the answer was, ‘We don’t know, but, we’re going to take care of it’. So, that was kind of the end of it. So, my wife and I kind of agreed the only way to keep that from ever happening again was to own my own business. So, we started looking for a business. The short version of the long story is that we had always talked about opening a cheesecake business when we retired. So, we kind of looked at a couple of other businesses around and said, ‘You know, maybe, it’s time to do the cheesecake business’. So, that’s what we decided to do.
Q – Before losing your job, were you baking cheesecakes on weekends?
A – No.
Q – Was your wife a baker?
A – No.
Q – Where did the interest come from then in opening a cheesecake bakery?
A – It’s a story that goes back to the 70’s when I had a very good friend that had a cheesecake business in the local area here and then sold it. He and I decided when we retired that we would go back and re-build that cheesecake business. That was kind of our decision. And of course he was the cheesecake expert and my expertise is in Operations And Manufacturing. So I mean we had a perfect match. He spent 3 years making cheesecakes and I had the expertise on how to make things in volume and make them right every time and the control of the material and processes and all of that. So, we decided we had a perfect mix. It’s just that it happened a little sooner for me than what I had expected. So, when this opportunity arose I said if we’re going to start a business we might as well make it the cheesecake business ‘cause we talked about doing it anyhow. So, that’s what I did.
Q – How did you know there would be a market in the San Jose area for your cheesecakes?
A – Well, you know the interesting thing is I was actually in the process of doing the due diligence on buying a pita bread and bagel business which is what I was looking at. I mentioned to the broker that was trying to sell us that business that at some point I would take some of the extra space once I got the business running and I’ll call my friend up in Redding and we’ll make cheesecakes. She said, ‘Well, that’s really weird’. I said, ‘Why is that weird’. She said, ‘Because I’m meeting with a guy today that is listing a cheesecake business in San Jose who says he has to get out of it in the next 30 days. He doesn’t want to do it anymore. It’s too stressful’. It turned out his lease was up anyhow. That was part of it. She said, ‘Let me talk to him and find out what he wants for his business’. He had a small business here making cheesecakes. His wife was distributing for him because she worked for a local food distributer. We came down and looked at this business and said this is perfect. We’ll just buy this guy’s business. So, we got a facility. It wasn’t very well-equipped but, it was o.k. He had a couple things I really liked. He had an interesting basic recipe that I really liked, but, we had no processes or procedures in place so it was really Hit or Miss. It was good today, not so good tomorrow. Do you know what I mean?
Q – Sure. Quality Control.
A – Yeah well, but, it’s process control more than quality control. I mean, it’s quality always, but, it’s process. For me, I’m a process guy. That’s what I’ve done my whole life. So, for me it was easy. So, we did it. We bought his business which basically was the building and some equipment and he had a couple of accounts. He was selling a nine inch cheesecake. He was definitely not making any money. He was definitely upside down big time, which is part of why he wanted to get out of it. He was just bleeding. He was paying to work is what it boiled down to. So, we took it over and opened it up. He was not retail. He was only wholesale when he started it. We opened up retail our first day here. We got a retail license and defined processes and procedures and invented I guess is the right word, the little Charlie’s Cheesecake Popper. We did that in 2005. We developed that product. That was actually in response to the local convention center here in San Jose. The chef there was looking for a small bite sized dessert. He was taking cheesecakes and cutting them into 8 or 9 pieces and putting them on plates and little cups. I said that’s really silly. We got to fix that. So, I kind of developed this little popper, Charlie’s Cheesecake Popper, those little one ounce bite-sized cheesecakes. We developed those back in 2005 and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.
Q –Did you have to make these cold calls to hotels and restaurants and try to convince them to carry your cheesecakes?
A – Yeah. That’s exactly right. We spent a lot of time giving samples to people, talking to people.
Q – Did you get anybody to help you out?
A – I tried hiring folks, but unfortunately without much success, so I did all the sales calls and to this day still do all the sales calls. You’ve seen how far we’ve come with our product. We’re in 2 Costco’s here in California. We’ve gone through the easy certification process for Costco and the hard one which is a HAACP program. HAACP is what people who do chicken, fish and beef have to be certified to. We’re certified to that. We just did our last audit. We ended up at 92.8% which is not bad.
Q – How many people working at Charlie’s Cheesecake?
A – You’re probably gonna laugh, but, there’s two of us working full-time including myself and two of us part-time. We now supply two Costco’s out of 29 in the Bay Area. We also sell to a co. called Sysco who are big food service folks. They also distribute for us. So, we have those 3 big wholesale accounts. Half our business goes out the door. We have a small storefront in San Jose. Half our business comes from our walk-in, return customers. So, I have no complaints about it.
Q – Some people would say, why call on hotels and restaurants to take your cheesecakes? Don’t they have their own people who could make cheesecakes?
A – That’s an excellent question. The answer to that is in a lot of cases they do it themselves, but if you want volume, and for example you’re seating 1,000 people you need to make 65 cheesecakes if cut ‘em 14 slices each. That’s a lot of resource to tie up making a dessert when you can come to me and buy ‘em. So, what happens is, the chef makes the decision in a lot of cases where there are large quantities for banquets to come to me. If you’re just doing one or two for your restaurant, then you’re a hundred percent correct and that’s part of the reason why we don’t sell to a whole lot of restaurants. If I do sell to them, they take 2 cheesecakes a week. It’s not even worth delivering. It’s kind of a hassle. Most of the restaurants in town if they have a good pastry chef and remember a cheesecake is not a simple thing to make, it takes a lot more time and energy and a lot more care than making your normal cakes and cookies. So, it’s kind of a specialized process you have to go through. We’ve been able to over 8 years pretty much refine the process to where we’re pretty efficient at it.
Q – You make your cheesecake with All Natural Real California Cream Cheese.
A – That is correct.
Q – Is that what gives it that special taste?
A – I think it does 2 things. One of ‘em is just fluff and that is it’s just natural to California. That means the milk and the cream that the gentleman makes the cheese for me, the milk that he uses comes from California. But, I’m not importing cream cheese from any place other than California. It’s California fed cattle that creates the milk and the cream that goes into the cream cheese I get. The All Natural part definitely has two advantages, one of ‘em is it makes the product very resilient in the sense that most cheesecakes you have to cool them for a long period of time, and then you have to refrigerate them and then you try to cut them. Our stuff is pretty simple. We don’t have to go through all that stuff. At the end of the shift we put all the cakes in the freezer. You take ‘em out. You defrost ‘em and they’re as good as if they were bakes an hour a go. And, because they’re all natural you can re-freeze them. So, that means if you buy a nine inch cake with 16 slices and you have a party of 8 and you have 6 slices left, you just wrap ‘em up, put ‘em back in the freezer and they’re as good as they can be 2-3 months from now.
Q – So, that’s really what separates your cheesecakes from all the others?
A – If you talk about what makes our cake better than Cheesecake Factory and the rest of ‘em – yeah.
Cheesecake Factory is a huge organization and they make a pretty good cake, but they use Kraft Cream Cheese and if you look at a label on Kraft Cream Cheese, it’s got 50 items in it, a lot of it which is not natural stuff. You look at mine, it’s got Cream Cheese. It’s got Cream. It’s got milk. It’s got a little bit of sea salt and that’s it.
Q – Is there a busier time of the year for you?
A – Yeah. Q4 is always our busiest quarter. October, November and December are always our busiest because all of our accounts get busy because when people start doing banquets they call us. If they’re doing 20 or 30 people they may make a couple of cakes, but if they’re doing 1,000 people, they’re not going to make 60 cakes. It just takes way too much time and resources and think of how many pans you got to have to do that. Each cake requires a pan. So, you got 60 pans sitting on a shelf? I don’t think so. I do. I got 150 of ‘em sitting there. So, when someone wants a lot of something they can call me. The Poppers we make about 150 dozen a day. We make at least 3 flavors everyday.
Q – How’s your Internet business?
A – We don’t ship anymore. We used to do that. It just wasn’t a profitable business. I couldn’t seem to get decent rates out of FedEx that made it worthwhile to do that. We get a lot of customer orders online for people to come in and pick our stuff up.
Q – And you teach a class as well?
A – Well, there’s a couple local folks that use me for small groups. I have thing here called ‘The Cheesecake Challenge.’ When the kids come in the door they can get a free little Popper Cheesecake, but, they have to do a math problem. So, when I teach classes we start out today by talking about how many ounces in a cup, how many ounces in a pound; we talk about density. We talk a little about Charles Law. We talk about how the freezer works, why the door opens one time, but doesn’t when you close it and try to open it again. We talk about baking versus cooking, the difference between the two, one being chemistry and the other just heat stuff up and mix it together. We talk about all of those things and all in the context of mathematics.
Q – Do they actually get to make a cake in your class?
A – They do. They actually made 24 dozen Poppers today and they’re sitting here in the freezer. They’ll come back here tomorrow and take ‘em out of the pans and take ‘em home.
Q – And you teach to Boy Scouts and/or Girl Scouts?
A – And this one was an after school program that one of the parents had been running for about 5 years where she takes kids when they get out of school and takes ‘em and does projects and all kinds of neat stuff with ‘em, and I’m one of her resources that she uses.
Q – That’s nice.
A – Well, it’s nice for me because all the parents of the kids go home with a 6 pack of our little Poppers which they got to make up a 6 pack when they go home, and the parents get to try my stuff. For me, the most important thing is to get my food in peoples’ mouth, because you can talk all you want about how great of a product we have, but, if you haven’t tasted it, it doesn’t matter.
Official website: www.charliescheesecakeworks.com
© Gary James All Rights Reserved