Susan Morgan Interview
(Elegant Cheese Cakes)
Elegant Cheese Cakes owner and pastry chef Susan Morgan has designed wedding cakes, celebration cakes and other chocolate delicacies since 1988.
Heralded as one of the Top “25 trendsetters” in Modern Bride (June/July 2005) Susan Morgan enjoys a national reputation as a Master Chocolatiere.
Her work has been featured on such television programs as Good Morning America, the Food Network, Oprah’s Wedding Day Show, and Evening Magazine.
Publications such as Bon Appetit, Gourmet, Modern Bride, and Newsweek have also featured her cakes.
Located in Half Moon Bay, near San Francisco, Susan Morgan took some time out from a very busy schedule to speak with us.
Q – Susan, what is the difference between a cheesecake and an elegant cheesecake?
A – We take a delicious cheesecake which has a little different formula than maybe what the Easterners recognize as cheesecake. It’s a little more really creamy dense, lot of sour cream, real cream cheesy base. We do add flour to it and we bake it so it’s a little more cake-like. It’s got great flavor. We play with the flour combination so it’s not just plain cheesecake or bourbon vanilla cheesecake. But, what makes it completely different is we take all of them and we envelop them with imported chocolate. So, we turn it into this edible art form. When people say they just do cheesecakes and they’re $85.00, they kind of go whoaa…..They’re expecting a little round with maybe a little whip cream around the edges. Well, we don’t even go down that road. We’ll do squares, rounds, different shapes and traditionally our trademark look is a package look. It’s enveloped like wrapping paper, but, we call it chocolate paper. It can be white chocolate, milk chocolate, dark chocolate. It can be white chocolate tinted so it can be very sassy in the color combination. Then we would tie it with a ribbon and a bow. The bow of course is chocolate again, or could have flowers or whatever the adornment is. So, it’s taking a completely different approach to taking a cheesecake that is traditionally round and making it into a beautiful piece of artwork.
Q – Do you have a celebrity clientele?
A – I work with a lot of event planners and I don’t always know who’s getting them. A lot of football players. People in sports. Not as many movie stars which is maybe unfortunate. I wouldn’t say we’re real strong in that area. I think it’s probably because of my lack of marketing. And now the market is pretty saturated. We’ve been doing this 20 years, if not more. We’ve gone through a lot of personal assistants that said don’t jabber. And producers. I’m not a big name dropper. We get a lot of people all over the country that will go on and order. They’re not in a metropolitan area and they want something really fabulous, so they have the extra income and they’ll spend it. They’ll spend for the shipping ‘cause it is shipped overnight. We ship wedding cakes, and party cakes. That’s really a trick. We probably ship 5 of those a year, so that’s not huge. We’ve got different sites we’re partnering with. We’ve been connected with Nieman-Marcus for 17 years and Saks, Gift Tree. There’s some smaller sites but they still generate a lot of online business. And then people just come to our site directly.
Q – With all the talk about how bad the economy is, you would think people would be cutting back on a luxury item. But, it sounds like business is pretty good for you.
A – Business is good, but, we’ve had to change the way we do some things too. People are a little more hesitant. They’re not as lavish in what they want. They’ll call but they’ll say, ‘I don’t want to spend $800. I’d rather spend $600’. We’ve definitely felt a curve in the economy. I feel it’s coming back. Over a couple holidays we’ve had so many of our corporate clients that are usually ordering and send gifts; a lot of ‘em went out of business. I have a name drop I can do. We do holiday cakes, probably for the last 10 years for Neil Young, ‘cause he’s right here in the Bay Area. Because we’re more of a luxury market, the economy has definitely affected us. So, what we did is we came out with a second label and its called Baking In Circles. Over a year ago we did the Fancy Food Show which is in the Bay Area. We got hooked up with Cosco which is a completely different model from what we’ve been doing. Now, were on Cosco.com. They make you jump through incredible hoops to do business with them. It’s like you just can’t say, ‘I bake great cakes and this is what they are’. You have to be approved by a Third Party Inspection Co. You have to conduct your business so if there was a major recall, you have to be able to trace back everything. So, it turned our business in a different way. However it kind of regulated with the economy so we still have people coming in and yeah, they’re ordering, not as many will come in and say, ‘I want a $1,000 birthday cake’. They still come but now we have another thing that kind of balances. It’s still pretty. It’s as we say, the same stuff without the fluff. Getting through these years where things are tighter and people are still unemployed, it allows us to still get out there and then, say they’ll have a big occasion, they come back. That’s when we’ll get them to come back on our website. Cosco is good to the consumer. They don’t jab. They don’t mark-up like other big retailers do.
Q – So, what were you doing before you started this business?
A – I was a Kleenex lady.
Q – What does that mean?
A – I worked for Kimberly-Clarke. I was in Sales. We sold Kotex, and Kleenex and Huggies. I was an Account Manager. It was a great job but, it was not artistic at all, other than presentations you could do. Corporate structure. I did my sister’s wedding cake and it was really ugly but everyone went wow! it tasted great. I thought, God, this could be something kind of fun. So, I just started playing at home and baking and started working with chocolate. I didn’t go to culinary school. I’m all self-taught. But, I know I have an art mind. So, it just kind of evolved. We started in ’88, doing mostly parties and weddings. Then in ’95, that’s when we got hooked up with Nieman’s and that opened our eyes to shipping cakes. We are the pioneers of putting beautiful cakes like this enveloped with chocolate, shipping it overnight and having it arrive in perfect shape. Everybody else, all my competitors are in the Bay Area. They all kind of knock us off. Nieman’s is good for that because they expect cutting edge, really new ideas every year. So we have to come up with new concepts and designs so they look fresh and they have to arrive as beautiful as they look. But, that’s good. That’s the stretch. That’s the fun part. We’re not a retail bakery per se. We have a commercial kitchen and we have a studio where people come if they want to see our slide show and we do tastings here. Probably 65% - 70 % is mail order now. We ship anywhere from a $65 cake to a $5,000 cake.
Q – How many people do you have working for you?
A – I have about 4. It’s small. You don’t want a lot of people. You want people that care, are committed and like it. Then, there’s less lack of communication. My main lady has been with me for 17 years, no baking experience. Now, she runs the kitchen. But, a lot of it is trial and error. With the onset of everybody going to culinary or they’re leaving their big corporate jobs and going to culinary, we’ve had an onset of those too. I’d rather have somebody who has a real art eye, good attention to detail. So, I don’t usually go for when we’re hiring people that are aspiring for this – I don’t go for the ones who have been to culinary. We’ve got it down pretty much to a science, however we’re open to change when we see new projects we’re working on. There’s different ways of baking and different ways of presenting it, or packing it, and we’re open to that. Sometimes the culinary come in and they think they can change our ways and they know better but – they don’t.
Q – So, if a person walks in and asks you for a job – they would probably have to audition.
A – Yeah. And attitude is really big because we’re just a small operation and we all work together. So, we’re all on the same page. Nobody really makes a big mistake.
Official website: www.elegantcheesecakes.com
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