How We Started a One-of-a-Kind Cheesecake Business

We are Chef Kenneth J & Tamara Willams of Royal Cheesecake & Varieties, LLC.  We are home of the Chicken and Waffle Cheesecake. As seen on ABC 11 below.

It all started out with FAITH! Six years ago we stepped out on it, and trusted GOD. We left our careers, family, friends, and comfortable lifestyles to pursue after that small tapping on our hearts.

The last six years have been a journey that deserves a documentary or book. The first year we were hit with family tragedy after tragedy. The phone rang often with situation after situation. We battled through to pursue our dreams.

The next few years were a business, marriage and life struggle as we were newlyweds, and trying to convince locals in the Triangle we were here to stay. The made from scratch business was not booming as it is right now. We lost a lot of money, but we worked hard, and stood on Proverbs 3:5-6. Our 3rd year was our coming out party! The Triangle embraced us for our commitment, consistent delicious product, and hard work. 

We made relationships, partnerships, and catered events. Royal Cheesecake & Varieties had turned around. Now, we’re making over $300+ a farmers market with less than 50 attendees.

Royal Cheesecake & Varieties

Chicken and Waffle Cheesecake: Classic Cheesecake on top of a Brown Sugar, Butter Pecan Crust. Topped with toasted waffles and a Chicken Au Jus and Caramel syrup.

What are your ballpark monthly or annual revenue figures?

Our ballpark figures change quarterly. The winter quarter ranges from $1000-$3000. The summer quarter ranges from $2000-$3500. The spring quarter ranges from $1000-$1500.

These numbers does not include a wedding, or catering event. We don’t base our future revenue on events we don’t have yet. We’re looking into more events to bring up the Spring and Winter revenue.

You can get a good estimate with repeat orders, wholesale accounts, and looking over your numbers from the last 2-3 times you did an event. It’s important to factor in the weather and area attractions. Did you not make as much because of the weather or an event in town? These are important things to consider.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea to start a cheesecake business?

Chef Kenneth J. started making our delicious cheesecake, so I wouldn’t flunk my baking class! I couldn’t make a cheesecake or a biscuit to save my derriere 😉 haha!

I had an amazing Baking Instructor who was set to retire in 3 years, and wasn’t shy about giving you her honest opinion until that day came. Chef R came to me and said, “Kenneth your cheesecake and biscuits are not good!

You’re going to repeat this 7 week course with me again if you can’t make these 2 items” I looked at my wonderful Chef with a smile and said “I am not looking at you again M-F, 5 hours a day for another 7 weeks” Chef smiled back! I asked can I take it home to practice, and she said yes. “You have a week.”

A mouthwatering strawberry cheesecake.

My big butt was so grateful 🙂 I went home and broke cheesecake down to the bone. I read different recipes, watched other chefs make traditional cheesecake, and looked at all the steps of how to make a great cheesecake. I gathered all that knowledge up and threw it out the window!

I knew right then I wanted to be different. I bet on myself! If I was going to fell this class it was, because I tried my recipe. I could walk out with my head held high that I tried! The next week  Chef R came right to me. “I was thinking its other people in the class, do I have to be first”

Chef R said “ Kenneth, let’s have it” She leaned over the desk, and bit the biscuit. She said “ok, this is not bad. It could be a less dense and flakier”

Then she tasted the cheesecake. She started chewing then she stopped, and took off her glasses. I was ready to walk to registration to sign up for next semester! She looked up at me and said “Kenneth, you have something here” I was blown away! Chef R stood up and took another bite.

She continued “ this is different.”  I responded “Yes, I did everything a different way.” She responded. “Yes, I see. This is good. You pass!” (PRAISE GOD! Financial Aid didn’t pay for repeat classes!!)

A lightbulb went off in my head, and I said, “Chef R, do you think I could sell this? Can I make this into a company”? Chef R said, “Yes, if you tweak a few things and work on the presentation you can.”

“Everyone can’t make a good cheesecake Kenneth” Those encouraging words from a Chef who was ready to hang up the apron after 30+ years, and had no lies to tell was all I needed to hear! 

I, Tamara learned how to bake in the kitchen with my grandma. My grandma did not share her recipes but the technique of baking. She knew if you went cheap on an ingredient or if you did not have enough of an ingredient.

She was honest and let you know. My interest was in pound cakes because we always had them. My first one, my mother loved it but the test was did grandma?

My grandma ate a piece and asked, “how many eggs did you use?” I told her she said ok. She asked, “Did you beat them one at a time?”, I said “yes.” She did not say what hers included but she finally said, “Tam this is good.” I was grandma certified in the baking. 

I started to bake for coworkers and when I married Chef Kenneth J he stated we should do a dessert company together. I was hesitant because we were newlyweds and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to work with my husband.

After almost 6 years, we have had some hiccups, but I can honestly say I enjoy working with my best friend. 

Thank you Chef Rango. This ones for you. 

A delicious cheesecake.
Thank you grandma! 

Take us through the process of developing, testing, and producing your first products.

We started Royal Cheesecake & Varieties at a kiosk in a local Durham mall. We had to get inspected by the Department of  Agriculture to bake at our home and at an incubator. We got business insurance and permit to work at the mall.

The kiosk rental was for the holiday and was $1200. We utilized plastic cupcake containers for our cupcakes and cheesecake cupcakes. We also sold carrot cake. 

The challenges we faced were not being natives of Durham. Durham is about promoting their own and being out of state, people were hesitant to try us. In addition, the appreciation of made from scratch was not well received as it is today. 

We opened the kiosk on November 26,2013. We did another kiosk in 2016 at Cary Towne Center. After doing these two, we would not do another kiosk in a mall unless the mall allows for flexible hours.

The advice we would give someone considering opening a food kiosk in the mall is: 

  • Know the mall you are interested, visit it on the weekend, it’s slow days ( usually monday/tuesday)
  • Let the employers know that you are there. At Northgate, our repeated customers were the employees at the mall. Give them an incentive( punch card,loyalty program). We also gave samples and flyers to the stores before we opened at Cary Towne Center.
  • Decorate the kiosk for the season. We were at Northgate during the holiday season and did not take advantage of this. You are a kiosk among many, stand-out.
  • Ask the mall owners if you can be closed on Sunday-Monday. Depending on starting out, it’s just you and a small team. You need Sunday-Monday to bake,cook, regroup and rest.
  • Understand that there will be good sale days and bad sale days but stay persistent.
  • Ask the mall to include you on their directory, website, etc
  • Tag the mall name in all of your social media to let people know that you are there. 

Describe the process of launching the business.

We started our company with FAITH! GOD moved us to NC from Detroit, and we begin. We had little money, barely any friends, and no food contacts! We were strangers in a new community.

Chef Kenneth J. used his bonus checks, savings, credit cards, and the money from his mom passing. Tamara used money from her savings, and credit cards. We lived, pay bills, and ran the company on $30,000 that year.

  • LLC $200
  • Business Insurance $700 (We were misled by someone in the business who was supposed to be looking out for entrepreneurs)  Insurance doesn’t cost this much! We have $1M in coverage and its not this price.
  • Internet monthly: $99 
  • Cell phones/Business phone monthly $200 
  • Supplies: $ 

Our food cost was over 60% because we were buying everything from the grocery store, and a lot of times it wasn’t on sale. We didn’t know about Rest. Depot, Sams, or Bj’s until our 3rd year. 

  • Application fees $25-300
  • Logo/advertising/uniforms $1000
  • Rent, gas, grocery, and utilities took up the rest

We created our first website using Homestead.com and 2 years later had someone revamp it. Social media was something we knew nothing about when it came to using it for business, so our few customers came from word of mouth, farmers market, and business cards.

GoFund Me Video

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

The best way to grow is always word of mouth. When people find something they like they don’t stop sharing the news. Small companies that are consistent will continue to grow. 

We partnered with food bloggers and Yelp to have tasting parties. The bloggers were invited to eat and drink for free, and in exchange they promoted us on their social media platform. Once the foodies on their page heard about a new dessert company they were in. We started selling out at all of our events. 

Our social media knowledge was limited. We only used Facebook, and didn’t know anything about hashtags. When we started IG we would just post a picture, and a comment. Foodies barely looked at our page, so we had to do some homework. Youtube became our BF for small business. 

Alex Beadon’s channel really took our social media to the next level. We truly recommend watching people in your industry. Reach out to them and join their free groups if it’s beneficial for you.

Celebrating National Cheesecake Day with a Pop-up.

Mailchimp email service is free (depending on the package you select), and very easy to use. We use them to send out our monthly food letter, announcements and coupons.

Please don’t send customers more than 3-4 emails a month. You don’t want to be annoying. Customers will spread the news, and you will lose business. Email stalking from small businesses sucks. We are contacting PR services to help us get to the next level. 

It’s hard to get customers to return to your business when you’re new. The most important thing to do is show them how you’re different and better than their usually company.

It’s a BLESSING when customers travel from the other side of town to purchase your products. When you have a return customer make them feel welcome by using their name, or a loyalty stamp.

Tips and Details on Hosting a Tasting Party

Our first tasting party was at our brick and mortar in Durham. We had about 10-12 people that came. Our tasting parties were held in the evening on a slow day like Tuesday.

We had received information from a good blogger in the area that did a food adventure (6 course desserts) with us.

We had 5 different desserts for the bloggers to taste: red velvet cheesecake cake, turtle cheesecake, sweet potato pound cake, cherry and classic cheesecake and coffee and water. 

Guests could choose what they like and we also provided a box to go home with them as well.

They posted pics and shoutouts on their pages and we took their pic and posted on our social media. 

Hosting a Cheese cake tasting party with local bloggers.

We reached out to local food bloggers in the area, if it was Durham, Chapel Hill, TriangleNC based on their social media.

A Promotional Flyer for Royal Cheesecake & Varieties.
20% off your next cheese cake purchase. (Example. Not valid for printing on off.)

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Currently our business has been profitable. Our cost of goods average 20-30% of our sales. We utilize Facebook ad costs which is $20 per month depending on the event. 

We have scaled down our wholesale sales to 20% and plan to increase our revenue in corporate and wedding events. 

We are looking to take a popular cheesecake flavor, “Chicken & Waffle” cheesecake to the Metro DC and Atlanta locations through local markets and venue events. 

Our short term goals is to lease a food truck that will increase our market to attend food truck events as well corporate buildings for their employees.

Our long term goals is to increase sales and look into franchising. 

Through starting a cheesecake business, have you learned anything particularly advantageous?

The mistakes/poor decisions we made were not thoroughly researching our brick and mortar location. We were so ecstatic to receive a brick and mortar but did not realize the marketing aspect of it. 

We utilized flyers, social media, word of mouth but a certain part of it was “tainted” and some citizens liked to avoid that location. At first sight, we did not see an issue with it but after the lease closed and some of our customers followed us to our pop-up, they revealed their true concern.

A good decision we have made was participating in festivals that North Carolina has to offer. We do not have the overhead of a brick and mortar, we set-up and have a great following at the events we participate. 

The majority of our events we sell-out of our products as our customers love to purchase at least 2 items.

Another good decision we have made was scaling down our menu for events.

We used to offer 5-6 different items and it became overwhelming for customers. Now we only do 3 different items and bottled beverages and it makes customers choose easier. 

The helpful habits we possess is planning our menu in advance. We review the event and if it is a repeat event, we look at what sold well there. 

We also pack our items up the night before so that we are not rushing to an event. 

Tips for finding lucrative events:

Research your city’s visitor’s website and check out your local media/news for festivals as they post events.

Honestly word of mouth is key here. We have attended great events and some that we will not do again. If we are unsure of an event, we are willing to attend as a patron/volunteer the first visit, if we see it is great, we will sign up to be a vendor for it the next year. 

Also be cautious of the first time it is being held. For example, we did an event that was their first one and it was unorganized about the set-up and communication and most people came to drink beer but not purchase anything.

On the contrary, we did another first event, everyone showed up and we sold out in 90 minutes. Sometimes it works out great and sometimes it does not. 

Additionally, look at how the event is being promoted. Is it in the news, FB, IG, Twitter or just you and the vendors promoting it.

What are the baking utensils or equipment you couldn’t live without?

Our favorite kitchen equipment we couldn’t live without is: Chef Kenneth J says the spatula and Tamara says the stand mixer. 

Faberware Spatulas: The spatula can be used to flip, get stuff out of the can, stir, and scrape batter out of the bowl.

KitchenAid mixer: The standing mixer is the queen of mixing. You can stir it slow, fast for buttercream frosting and it is hands-free.

POS System: The software that we use is Square. We use the app for transactions and inventory of our products. 

What have been the most influential books, cookbooks, podcasts, or other resources?

Our influential resources we have used are Alex Beadon podcast, Porsha “your cake diva” Kimble, The Small Business Revolution, SCORE, and Indulge Catering.

  • Alex Beadon podcast is valuable to us because it helped us with getting followers and what things to post and hashtag.
  • Porsha Kimble gives great ideas and tool recommendations for baking.
  • Indulge Catering is a local catering company who gave us input on grasping customers and how to get customers.
  • The Small Business Revolution gives insight to run a small business and rebranding. 
  • We have utilized SCORE for mentors who have business information and webinars. 

Advice for food entrepreneurs

Budget well and do not spend frivolously.  You did not need the newest latest gadget or expensive tool to create your product. The gift is in your hands.

You need to know your numbers. How much does it cost to make a cake including all ingredients, gas to deliver, packaging and labels. Make sure you are getting a return on your sales.

Try not to be shy. Go to networking events and introduce yourself and let people know how great you are but also be humble.

When you are doing an event, have great customer service. Many times, when we are a vendor at event, we see other vendors sitting in their chair with their arms folded or not speaking to people when they walk by their booth. 

Reach out (in words) and engage them in conversation. A great conversation can sometimes lead to a great sale or referral.  

Connect with Royal Cheesecake & Varieties

About Support Staff

Brett Lindenberg is the founder of Food Truck Empire and Food Empire Pro. Brett's mission is help to entrepreneurs start and grow profitable food businesses. Since 2014, Brett has interviewed over 100 entrepreneurs on the Food Empire Pro podcast and written hundreds of blog posts on all aspects of food business. Brett has been quoted in media outlets like Entrepreneur Magazine, CNBC, and The Washington Post.