Gourmet cheesecake maker keeps business model fresh
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March, chef David Brooks was working 90 hours a week expanding his gourmet cheesecake business to restaurants locally and planning an April 1 rollout to restaurants nationwide.
In a matter of days, both markets dried up as officials slammed the doors on restaurants across the country to keep the virus from spreading. But Brooks, who’s learned to deftly pivot during 40 years in food service, redesigned his business model in a matter of weeks to keep his company, Dave’s Artisanal Cheesecakes, afloat.
“I knew I’d have to survive specifically on retail,” says Brooks, who started in 2013 selling to restaurants such as Crest Gastropub and expanded to include Matt the Miller’s, Lindey’s and Due Amici.
With more than 75 percent of his business gone during the early days of the pandemic, he started selling his high-end cheesecakes exclusively online. Brooks revamped his website and began to personally deliver cheesecakes to individuals or businesses who ordered them within Franklin County. He obtained loans through the Paycheck Protection and Economic Injury Disaster programs from the federal Small Business Administration to pay for the costs of expanding to shipping nationwide.
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One thing didn’t change—he continued to make all of the company’s cheesecakes himself at the Food Fort, an incubator for young food businesses on the Near East Side. These are no ordinary cheesecakes, Brooks is quick to point out. His goal is to make the best cheesecake in the country.
“I buy the very best ingredients I can get; there are no shortcuts here,” he says. The vanilla extract he uses, for example, is a mixture he creates by blending extracts sourced from three countries. He bakes a range of cheesecake sizes, from 2 ½- to 10-pound, and flavors, including traditional deli style, elderberry and buttermilk swirl, Guinness stout and vanilla bean.
“He’s amazing; he really knows his stuff,” says Michael Morales, who’s worked as a chef for more than 30 years. Morales, known as Chef Michael, met Brooks at the Food Fort, which he uses for his two catering businesses, Kool Daddy’s BBQ and Tasteful Occasion. Morales says Brooks’ cheesecake is the smoothest he’s ever tasted, and meticulously made. “He puts a lot of love into it, and a lot of time and effort into the process,” he says.
Joe Vavrek, corporate chef for Matt the Miller’s, said his restaurants started serving Brooks’ cheesecake about five years ago as part of a special regional menu, then continued to serve it.
“The quality of the product and the pricing and love and care he put into it checked all the boxes,” Vavrek says. Brooks also uses heavyweight packaging, dividers between the cheesecake pieces and was willing to custom-make special varieties for the restaurants, such as some with a gluten-free crust.
Brooks first delved into the tricky world of cheesecake baking in a “bachelor living class” when he was a sophomore at Fredericktown High School in Knox County in 1975. He wasn’t planning a career as a chef when he graduated from Ohio State University with a journalism degree. But he’d worked in food service as a student and continued after he finished school, eventually learning enough to work as a sous chef and pastry chef at Columbus restaurants such as Fifty Five at Crosswoods. In 2003 he opened Your Just Desserts as a side hustle, selling wedding cakes and other specialties while working at area restaurants and a local grocery chain.
In 2013 he made the leap to a full-time cheesecake business with one employee: himself.
“I love to bake cheesecake,” Brooks says when asked why he settled on that particular product. “I can’t say it any better than that. It’s my passion and I have spent years practicing my craft.”
He hopes to expand sales worldwide in the coming months despite the uncertain economy.
“I think I’ve ironed out the packaging—we’ll put them in dry ice in special shipping containers,” he says. “We’ll dip our toe in with the continental United States for the first six weeks, then add Alaska and Hawaii and then go international. Our tagline will be: We ship anywhere.”
He’s confident he’ll succeed. “We’ll take baby steps forward if we have to. We’ve been through tough times before and tough times don’t last, but tough people do. We’re tough people.”
Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.
Dave's Artisanal Cheesecakes
Food Fort, 737 Parkwood Ave., Columbus 43219
Business: Makes and sells specialty cheesecakes online
Owner: David Brooks
Revenue: Would not disclose