They sell cheesecakes by the seaside

From weekly sales of 10 cheesecakes baked at a beach clam stand during the summer of 1976, the Cheesecake Company has grown to fill a 7,000-foot commercial building in this historic seacost town, plus a new retail shop in Salem, Mass. Each week some 3,000 of the company's cakes grace family and restaurant tables from Maine to Florida.

Preston Reed and Skip Stearns, the founders, admit the novel baking venture started as just a notion.

Neither planned to get into the bakery business. Mr. Reed, an Ohio State graduate with a major in international trade, had always enjoyed cooking as a hobby. After a year of eating his way through Europe, he decided to put his culinary talents to use as chef in a well- known Boston restaurant.

Later, when he and his wife settled in Newburyport, he took a chef's job here , taught culinary arts in a nearby vocational school, and started baking cheesecakes.

"I just decided there was a market out there for really good cheesecakes," he said. "I had always wanted to open a restaurant, but I began to think about starting a cheesecakes business instead."

At first he baked cakes at home and sold them to local restaurants. When the orders exceeded the capacity of his kitchen oven, he leased a clam stand on nearby Plum Island and operated it as a restaurant during summer vacation, using the larger ovens to expand production. Soon he found that baking and marketing the cakes, plus holding down his jobs as a chef and a teacher, more than filled 24 hours a day. He needed a business partner just as Skip Stearns wanted a new job.

Skip had attended American University and worked as a researcher for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. During a trip to New England, he met Mr. Preston, heard of the new venture, and signed on.

"I had never sold anything in my life," he recalled. "I knew we had a good product, so I just put a couple of cheesecakes in my car and started knocking on doors of the best restaurants. We used our smallness to our advantage. We were in personal contact with our customers, so we could ask them just what they thought of the cake, and they would tell us," he said.

The first year they added a carrot cake recipe from Skip's family and a Bavarian Chocolate Cake.

Cheesecake Company trucks now made daily deliveries to more than 250 restaurants throughout New england, and distributors service wholesale customers as far south as Florida. Bloomingdale's is one well-known name on the customer list.

Outgrowing the clam stand, Skip and Preston moved the company into its spacious contemporary headquarters in 1978. Hundreds of individual buyers flock each day to the retail counters here, where all of the baking is done. In the new Salem store on picturesque Pickering Wharf, customers enjoy cakes by the slice in a colorful cafe area.

Of the 3,000 cakes they bake each week, half are cheesecakes. They come in three sizes, plain with a variety of toppings or marbled. The smallest, six inches in diameter, weighs in at a solid 2 1/2 pounds. Carrot cakes, each with a full pound of smooth cream-cheese frosting, come in loaves and layers, as do the Bavarian Chocolate Cakes, which have shiny sour-cream chocolate icing wreathed with chopped walnuts.

In the spacious baking area of the shop, mixers whir velvety cheesecake batter to fill hundreds of waiting graham cracker crusts. Bakers frost rows of carrot cakes and decorate fat round cheesecakes from a colorful palette of blueberry, cherry, raspberry, pineapple, and strawberry toppings.

"The people we have working with us are excited about being part of something different," Mr. Reed said. Some of the best ideas we've had have come from them. We didn't come into this thing with any preconceived notions about how things had to be done, so we've been wide open to good ideas."

Although the company receives as many as half a dozen calls a week from restaurants requesting its cakes, it plans to concentrate on retail sales. Although customers constantly ask for more variety, the partners plan no new products.

"We don't want to add a new cake simply because we can sell it," Mr. Stearns said. "Of course if we came up with a new recipe we felt equal to the others, we'd make it. But we've established the business on quality and we intend to keep it that way."

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