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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Oftentimes when Wisconsin residents think of a favorite dessert, a delicious cheesecake from Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes & Distinctive Desserts comes to mind. This award-winning Wisconsin business has been setting the standards in the dessert industry since the mid ’80s, all due to the vision and passion of founder Suzy Strothmann. And Oak Creek is lucky to have Suzy’s headquartered right here in a new 49,000-sq.-ft. facility on South Howell Ave.
Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes are sold nationwide. They can be found in most local grocery stores and are served at area restaurants including Pizza Man, Meyers Family Restaurant, NYPD (New York Pizza Delivery), Chubby’s Cheesesteaks and El Señorial. The most popular flavors include New York, Turtle, and Strawberry and Cream. The company also features several cheesecake variety packs centered around a theme, like chocolate, candy bar or ice cream flavors — plus petite individuals servings. Plus, Suzy’s produces carrot cakes, chocolate fudge tortes, turtle fudge brownies, espresso brownies and more.
The story behind Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes dates back to Suzy’s childhood. She was born into a large family in small-town Manawa, Wis. (population 1,300), the thirteenth of 15 children. To stretch the family’s budget, her mom baked all her own breads, cookies, pies and cakes from scratch. The sense of warmth and pride attached to all these home-baked goods was instilled in Suzy early in life. By 1983, she had a family of her own (five children and a working husband) and was a stay-at-home mom like her own mother. She found herself looking for creative ways to pass the time, so she started to bake. Meanwhile, her husband Mark was running one of Milwaukee’s top restaurants. This led them to travel whenever they could, seeking new menu ideas.
On one of their trips in 1982, they stopped at a small café in St. Helena, Calif., where they sampled a chocolate cheesecake unlike anything they had ever tasted. The waiter’s description of this dessert had intrigued them, prompting them to order it. A typical cheesecake of that era was white, plain and always baked on a graham cracker crust. Yet, when this particular cheesecake arrived, it was gloriously rich with semi-sweet chocolate, creamy beyond belief and baked on a buttered crust of crushed chocolate cookie wafers. Mark immediately asked Suzy if she thought she could bake something like it for the restaurant. Of course, she said “yes,” and the idea of Suzy’s Cream Cheesecake business began to form.
Soon, Suzy’s cheesecakes became so popular at Mark’s restaurant that dinner customers began ordering whole cakes for carry out. It was then that Suzy decided to open her own store. The first shop had only one oven, one refrigerator and 250 sq. ft. for baking and sales. On the first full day of work, Suzy and her niece managed to bake eight cheesecakes that sold out by the next afternoon. Fast forward 30+ years, and you now find Suzy’s cheesecakes and desserts sold in the finest grocery stores across America. And while the number of cheesecakes baked every day has increased dramatically, Suzy’s early memories of her mom’s scratch baking have bound her to the philosophy of using only the finest, freshest ingredients available. She never scrimps on quality.
Today, Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes & Distinctive Desserts has 65 full-time employees and remains a family-run business. Suzy’s husband Mark is in charge of IT and Systems Administration and plays an active role in planning the future of the business. Suzy’s son Mark works in sales and customer service. And her son-in-law Mark Kirchner is president and CEO. As for Suzy herself, she continues to be active in the business, working on new product development and collaborating with her husband on decisionmaking and business planning.
According to Kirchner, Suzy’s new Oak Creek location has worked out extremely well for the company. “We particularly enjoy having great access to the freeway for shipping our products. And we are proud to be a part of Oak Creek’s recent growth,” he says, adding, “The City is a thriving and growing community with great dining and entertainment options.” Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes is proud to be a strong community partner, donating to various area charities as well as opening its doors to the Oak Creek High School Culinary program. Additionally, charitable groups can partner with Suzy’s on their own fundraising efforts.
While there are dozens of commercially produced cheesecakes available, Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes & Distinctive Desserts still rise to the top. Thanks go to Suzy for building her passion into this nationally recognized business. We are proud to have you call Oak Creek home!
Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes & Distinctive Desserts
9911 s. Howell Ave. • (414) 453-2255 • suzys.com
If you are looking to ship a cheesecake or other dessert item, Suzy’s partners with several Wisconsin retailers, like Nueske’s and Wisconsin Made (visit suzys.com for more information).
After 14 years in St. Francis, Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes Inc. is now officially open in Oak Creek.
The 44,200-square-foot facility at 9911 S. Howell Ave. is more than quadruple the size of its former 10,000-square-foot St. Francis location at 1775 E. Bolivar Ave.
“We were very near capacity in St. Francis,” said Mark Kirchner, president and chief executive officer. “In order for the business to keep growing, we needed a larger space and more capacity.”
Suzy’s, a producer of cheesecakes and other desserts, had been running the St. Francis plant 24 hours per day, six or seven days per week for the past three years depending on the time of year, according to Kirchner. Now, he expects the new plant to run 12 hours per day, five days per week.
Now in the larger Oak Creek facility, Suzy’s expects to produce about four times as much product each year. Kirchner declined to disclose the company’s annual production rate.
With the new space, Suzy’s was also able to increase its baking, freezing and storage capacity, and it has made a “substantial” investment in new equipment, Kirchner said.
The company also will be hiring a yet to be determined number of production and office employees in the next few months, Kirchner said. Currently, it employs 120 to 130, which includes both full-time employees and temporary employees who are hired during busy times of the year.
Suzy’s shut down production at its St. Francis plant on May 11, but it has been in operation in Oak Creek since early April, Kirchner said. It officially opened its Oak Creek doors to the public, for retail sales, on May 19.
The opening comes four-and-a-half years after Suzy’s first began planning for a new facility, according to Kirchner.
Suzy’s initially announced in 2011 it was moving to a 50,000-square-foot building in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, but later dropped those plans. Kirchner went on to look at 123 industrial properties in southeastern Wisconsin before selecting the Oak Creek location in 2013.
“Oak Creek had the building that fit our needs,” said Kirchner, citing the requirement of a clean, wide-open space and the desire for a nearby location that would allow for a similar commute for employees.
The building, which Suzy’s is leasing for 20 years, was formerly occupied by C-Graphics LLC, according to Doug Seymour, Oak Creek director of community development.
Kirchner declined to disclose financial details, but he said the new building will “absolutely” allow Suzy’s to grow.
He did say, however, that the company’s sales recently doubled year-over-year for four years in a row.
“What’s driving the growth is No. 1, we make the best cheesecake in the country,” Kirchner said. “And we have new, innovative items driving growth both in cheesecakes and desserts.”
Cheesecake enrobed in chocolate is one such example, but the company is developing new concepts on a weekly basis. In addition to a robust research and development team, Kirchner said Suzy’s maintains a focus on customer service and quality.
Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes was founded in 1983 by Suzy Strothmann. Before moving to St. Francis in 2001, it was located at 5901 W. Vliet St. in Milwaukee.
The Oak Creek building was purchased in 2014 by an affiliate of Port Washington-based Ansay Development from an affiliate of Milwaukee-based Van Buren Management Inc. for $2 million, according to state records.
An Oak Creek industrial building proposed as the new home for Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes Inc. has received city approval for some renovations to accommodate the company.
The Plan Commission on Tuesday night approved changes to the 44,200-square-foot former commercial printing facility, at 9911 S. Howell Ave., said Kari Papelbon, a city planner. Suzy’s plans to begin that work as soon as possible, she said.
Suzy’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Kirchner couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Suzy’s, which now has around 50 employees at 1775 E. Bolivar Ave., St. Francis, plans to have 90 employees at the Oak Creek building, according to a city report.
The Oak Creek Common Council in January approved a $2.2 million industrial revenue bond sale to help finance Suzy’s move from its longtime St. Francis production facility to the Howell Ave. building.
The city would not be a lender nor a guarantor of the tax-exempt bonds.
Oak Creek would allow an affiliate of Port Washington-based Ansay Development Corp. to borrow money from a private lender by selling bonds issued in the city’s name.
The lender would accept a lower interest rate from the Ansay affiliate because the lender doesn’t pay federal taxes on municipal bonds.
The Oak Creek building was later sold to that affiliate, Howell Avenue Oak Creek LLC, by an affiliate of Milwaukee-based Van Buren Management Inc. for $2.05 million, according to state real estate records posted in March.
The company in 2011 proposed a new facility in Milwaukee, at the Menomonee Valley Industrial Center. But those plans didn’t proceed.
Also, Suzy’s last year considered building a new facility in Belgium, in Ozaukee County.