40 years after starting Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes, Suzy Strothmann isn’t tired of the treat

By Kristine M. Kierzek

Food and family are intertwined at every turn in Suzy Strothmann’s life. Wherever her family may be, they’re always paying attention to the food.

Her husband Mark and his family for decades ran one of Milwaukee’s top restaurants, Boulevard Inn. Traveling and tasting new things was essential to keeping on top of trends and tastes.

In the early 1980s the couple traveled to Napa Valley, where they visited a restaurant and had cheesecake for dessert. It was memorable, unlike anything they’d had before. When her husband asked if she might be able to recreate it back home for the restaurant, she said of course.

Once she nailed the recipe, she started getting feedback from friends and restaurant customers. Then she started getting requests. She knew she wanted her own place.

It was 1983 when Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes set up shop on 59th and Vliet St. She sold 13 cheesecakes that first day, working from a storefront of just 250 square feet with a pre-owned commercial mixer purchased from a local church.

Forty years later, she’s not tired of making cheesecake. She still eats it regularly, but being part of people’s celebrations is really what makes her happiest. Her cream cheesecakes are now shipped to all 50 states. They’re also available internationally, with the newest customers in Dubai. Flavor options have grown over the years, but the base recipe of Wisconsin cream cheese and butter never changes. That’s her one rule.

Plain New York style has been the consistent favorite and her signature over the decades, always the top-seller. Flavor options have varied, though turtle in some form has always been a staple. They’re always open to new flavor ideas for the Suzy’s brand and private label clients. Most recently they were on a quest to create the perfect peanut butter cheesecake for a customer.

Since 2016 the family business has operated out of a facility in Oak Creek, where production has doubled and they’re running two full shifts. Now, Strothmann’s son-in-law Mark Kirchner is the president and CEO, and the company is looking to either expand their current locale or add another space in the near future.

Strothmann, joined by Kirchner, talked with us during a visit to the facility in Oak Creek.

How a slice of chocolate cheesecake changed the course of her life

Suzy: The Boulevard Inn, that was my husband’s family restaurant, and they made desserts. My husband and I, we’d go to California to get ideas. This friend of ours, he knew all about Napa and had worked out there. He arranged for us to stay at Mike Robbins’ winery (Spring Mountain Vineyard) as a guest, and he told us some places to go to eat. We went to La Belle Helene; I don’t even know if they’re in business any more. For dessert I had the chocolate cheesecake. Mark had the pashka, another great product with cream cheese in it. Mark said to me, do you think you can make this cheesecake? He was paying ladies to come and make them for him. I hadn’t even really liked cheesecake at the time. Back then it was kind of dry, and it had not a lot of sugar, not a lot of flavor. I told him, yes, I could. I went home and I didn’t have any recipe, I just did it. I started baking at home, and I’d bake at the restaurant. I’d give them to my customers and have them taste them. People started ordering them, so I said I want my own place. …

We had $10,000 and we renovated this space, got used ovens, bought a mixer from a church.

From 13 cakes to Sendik’s and beyond

Suzy: The first day we sold 13 cakes. I’m also the 13th in my family! It was in October that we opened, so we started with a pumpkin cheesecake. Then I got Grasch’s (as a customer), which was such a beautiful store to have your food. Tony Grasch, that was my first big sale. Then I went to Sendik’s and V. Richard’s, which is now out of business. We also had walk-ins, and by the time we got to Christmas, business was really good. Shortly after that, people started asking if they could send them. We did a lot of Federal Express and sent out a lot of cheesecakes. My husband told me if you make it and it sells, I’ll package it.

She has one rule for her cheesecake

Suzy: It is a cream cheese base. We just make the cream cheese one, with cream cheese. Some have sour cream on top, but there’s no fillers. You look at ingredients on some of these cakes and you can’t pronounce the first few words. When Mark (Kirchner), my son-in-law, came into the business, I made him promise me.

Mark: The condition of me coming into the business was that we would never change the base recipe. It is truly using real ingredients.

Tastes have changed, but this one is always popular

Suzy: We started with a plain New York, a chocolate amaretto, a chocolate chip, a chocolate chip with walnuts, and turtle. That turtle has always been a big seller. We’ve modified it over the years. I used to totally enrobe it in chocolate. It just got to be too much.

Mark: There’s cookies and cream. Pumpkin, that was and is still in…

Suzy: The most popular cake is the New York, because you can do anything with it. You can buy fresh fruit, put cherries on it, or if you have a guest who does not want that, they can have their plain cheesecake.

How another dairy delight inspires what they make

Mark: For emerging trends, we’ll watch ice cream. What happens is a consumer will be willing to take a risk on a $5 pint of ice cream, and if it really starts to go gangbusters, then making the reach into a cheesecake is easier.

If she could only eat one kind of dessert, this is it

Suzy: We don’t make it any more. It would be a chocolate chip and walnut. I do make it at home for myself sometimes.

Her most memorable failure

Suzy: I had a wonderful pastry chef, Joel Stika, who turned out to be a lifelong friend. We did a Grand Marnier cheesecake that had real Grand Marnier in it, and on top it had orange marmalade. He made that with a gorgeous chocolate filigree butterfly. It was absolutely fabulous and it looked gorgeous with that orange marmalade on top with the beautiful butterfly. We called it the Grand Monarch. It didn’t sell. Yet six months or a year later, months later, people would ask, “Do you still have the Grand Monarch?” Don’t even ask! It was such a beautiful cake, but it didn’t sell.

A KitchenAid Christmas

Suzy: I didn’t always love it (the KitchenAid mixer). My husband got me a KitchenAid for Christmas one year, and that was better than the typewriter he got me. Can you imagine? Then he got me a sander. I had taken a furniture class at MATC and told him I thought (the sander) was neat. I was nine months pregnant. … Eventually I just told him I like jewelry treats.

Her business philosophy in a nutshell

Suzy: If you ask us to do something and we don’t normally do it, we’ll just figure it out.

Mark: One thing Suzy said to me … If somebody comes to you with an idea, just say yes, and we’ll sit down and figure it out. That philosophy is still in the company. That has allowed us to win things. Some people are so in the box, a cheesecake has to be round and whatnot. That philosophy has contributed to our success, to think outside the box.

What success means to her

Suzy: When you get there, turn around and help the guy behind you. If somebody needs advice — I’m not talking company secrets — don’t be afraid to help them. I needed a helping hand when I started. I am a firm believer in, you have to give back.

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