It's a dessert lover's dream, a Fort Knox of foodstuffs. Stacked on racks inside a refrigerated corridor in a warehouse in Pikesville are hundreds upon hundreds of sweet slabs of cheesecake, each sealed inside an individually sized plastic container like Snow White in her glass coffin. Some slices are marbled with flamingo swirls of strawberry or smoky streaks of chocolate, while other unadorned pieces have the glowing, creamy complexion that only fresh eggs and real dairy ingredients can supply.
It seems like there's enough dessert chilling away inside this freezer to feed half the city, but that's no surprise: Chances are, if you've eaten cheesecake at a restaurant in Baltimore during the past four decades, that succulent wedge started the journey to your table from the Mrs. Posé Bakery.
"Some restaurants will buy cheaper cakes off of distributors," says Susan Posé, president of Original Cheesecake Posé, Inc. (the official title of the company colloquially known as Mrs. Posé Bakery). "What they forget is that dessert's the last thing you eat after dinner. And you want to be left with—" she blinks her mascaraed eyes in emphasis of the shazam! a diner should feel at the end of a meal. "Wow, that dessert was excellent."
Posé knows a little something about excellent desserts, since she's the daughter of the company's founder. Her mother, Lois Posey Gibbons, founded the bakery in 1961 with one cheesecake recipe, one baking pan, and a need to support her kids after a divorce.
"She was a waitress at Love's Restaurant [in downtown Baltimore]," explains Posé, who is stylish and poised and much trimmer than anyone who owns a cheesecake company has a right to be. "She just started making this cheesecake and brought it into the restaurant. The owner loved it, and asked her if she'd make a couple and put them on the menu. And they were selling like crazy, and the owner said, 'Lois, can you make some more?'"
That request turned into a full-scale operation run out of the family's Govans rowhouse. Posé, who was barely in grade school when their home turned into a makeshift bakery, remembers deliveries of 50-pound bags of graham cracker crumbs tumbling down a sliding board into the basement and her mother mixing batches of batter in plastic baby tubs all night.
"She hardly slept," Posé recalls with more than a hint of admiration in her voice. "She would get up every four hours and pull [cakes] out of the oven and go back to bed. All night long she would do the baking and in the daytime she would sell and deliver them."
All that effort paid off as Mrs. Posé Bakery ("Posé" is a swanked-up variation on Posey, her first husband's name) soon took off. By 1978, the company was pulling in profits of $1 million a year. (Today, that figure is closer to $2 million.) A Sunday Sun profile of Gibbons from that year—framed and proudly mounted on the wall leading into the bakery floor, along with every other mention in the press over the past four decades—boasts that her company supplies cakes not only to Baltimore restaurants but also to "country clubs, gourmet shops and chain stores." The operation quickly outgrew the basement where Gibbons baked all her cakes ("You can't do that now, because of the health department," Posé emphasizes) and moved into increasingly large locations on Pimlico and Harford roads. For the past 28 years, the company has headquartered at a warehouse on Old Milford Mill Road, where the sign outside bears the company logo of a leggy baker girl epitomizing a different kind of "cheesecake."
But while Gibbons was sending her confections, via wholesale distributors, to locations up and down the eastern seaboard, Posé instead chose to seek her fortune on the opposite coast. "I had a girlfriend in college [from California], and she would come back in the summer and stay with us and I thought I'd like to go there," recalls Posé, whose deep bronze tan and frosted hair make her seem like a sunny California girl, despite her Baltimore accent. "And I wasn't married and I didn't have kids and I didn't have a lot of responsibility except to myself, and I went out there with her. My attitude was, 'Well, I'll see if I like it and I can always come back home.'
"And I came back 14 years later," she chuckles.
During that time in the suburbs of San Francisco, Posé became a hairdresser, married, and had two kids. But soon she divorced, just as her mother had. Strapped for cash as a single parent, she decided to return home and tried to establish her hairdressing career again, with little success. "I had a big clientele, but they didn't follow me from California," Posé explains dryly. "It's a good two or three years to build a business, and I just couldn't raise two kids. So my mother said, 'Why don't you come here and help out, and we'll give you a salary?'"
Posé resettled in Lutherville and worked as a jill-of-all-trades for the company for several years, doing everything from baking the cakes ("production," as she describes it), to driving the delivery truck, to working in sales.
"I learned it from the bottom up," she concludes. In 1993, when her sister Kathy decided not to assume the role of company president, Posé stepped in. Now Gibbons is enjoying her retirement in Florida while her daughter Susan continues the family legacy. The company's desserts are now institutions at restaurants that qualify as local institutions themselves.
"They've been very good with us regarding service, quality, everything," says Tim Stevens, vice president of Pizza John's restaurant in Essex. "It's just a good company to deal with." Mrs. Posé Bakery has dependably provided the plain and flavored cheesecakes and black-bottom cupcakes offered on the 220-seat Italian restaurant's dessert menu for at least the past decade, and Stevens has no complaints. Posé's devotion to customer satisfaction even extended to tweaking their recipe to give the restaurant the exact cheesecake of their dreams—a specification no other distributor could supply.
"The nice thing about us is, we're the manufacturer," says Posé. "So, if a restaurant says, 'I want a signature dessert,' we can do that, where as with a distributor they can't—they buy it one way and that's the way they get it."
Can we see the cheesecakes being made? "Now, this is our slow time, so there's not as much going on," warns Posé as she walks the 15 paces from her desk to the factory floor. August isn't a big month for the cheesecake industry—people "want to get in a bathing suit, so they don't want to eat dessert," Posé explains—but things will pick up again around the winter holidays. So for the summer months, the company focuses on making baked snacks for convenience stores and high-end grocers. (Have you picked up a black-bottom cupcake at a High's? That's Mrs. Posé, too.)
Stepping into the long and wide bakery room provokes an odd clash of stimuli—the space looks like an industrial workshop, all polished metal and heavy machinery, but it's got the cozy, caramelized smell of a home economics classroom. Trade the heavy-duty Hobart mixers for a wire whisk and the garage-sized oven for a household stove and it's easy to see how the only thing that's different from Mom whipping up a cake at the kitchen counter is the scale of the operation.
"If you did it with small equipment, you wouldn't be able to keep up," says Production Manager Jack Gussio as he gestures to several metal basins set on wheels, each cauldron brimming full of pale golden cheesecake batter. The richness of the ingredients is apparent in how the batter doesn't lay flat on the surface but instead cascades in voluptuous ripples.
"We don't cut corners on quality," Posé emphasizes. "We use real cream cheese, whole eggs. Everything's homemade."
The basic recipe for the cake hasn't changed in the 45 years since the company's founding. At that time in Baltimore, the dense and luscious confection most everyone now recognizes as cheesecake was something of a novelty. "There was a cheesecake in Baltimore but it was more floury and dry," says Posé. "My mother, when she started, she came up with a really creamy cheesecake. It was different, nobody else had it here."
Gibbons, who was born in New York, knew she had something good in the authentically Manhattan-style recipe Posé says Gibbons originally got from her sister-in-law. While the tangy, sweet, classic cheesecake it created is still a big seller, that basic recipe is now also the blank canvas for over 20 specialty variations like Marble Chocolate Chip, Key Lime, Caramel Apple Crumb, Strawberry Crème, and White Chocolate Chambord.
"You want to see what [flavors are] out there first and stay ahead of the game," says Gussio, who often walks through supermarkets looking to things like Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavors for inspiration. Have they ever tried a flavor that didn't work out? "He did a jalapeño cheesecake," Posé reminds him with a skeptical look.
"Well, actually, I'm still going to do an adobo chili and chocolate flavor," says Gussio, not yet ready to give up on the combination of sweet and hot flavors.
Wild combinations are the name of the game now as the wholesale dessert field is more competitive and independent operators like Mrs. Posé Bakery must stand out in the crowd. "When my mother started," recalls Posé, "she had one cheesecake and an Italian rum cake." Now the company has had to branch out into non-cheesecake gourmet treats like pies, layer cakes, blondies, brownies, black-bottom cupcakes, and "Elite European" cakes like chocolate ganache and tiramisu.
"We've had to go into gourmet cakes just to keep up," explains Posé. "A lot of desserts come in from distributors from other states. A lot of them use cheaper ingredients to make and market the cakes." But while Mrs. Posé Bakery emphasizes "competitive" pricing (a plain 9-inch cheesecake wholesales for $18.70), Posé refuses to cut corners. "We still do everything by hand," she insists. "Our recipe has not changed."
Nolan Goodson, the assistant baker, is working on a batch of more prosaically flavored Snickers cheesecakes. He nods a quick hello to his visitors and returns his attention to the springform pan teetering on the platform of a springloaded scale. He's already strewn a handful of crushed chocolate bars—real Snickers bars, assures Posé—over the pan's crumb crust bottom, and punches a button on a nearby machine. Batter chugs up through a narrow pipe centered in one of the basins, filling the pan to the correct weight with a silky ribbon of cheesecake lava. Two or three more handfuls of coarse-chopped candy spread across the surface, and another cake is ready for the oven.
Back in the office, Posé has set aside an assortment of cheesecake slices for sampling. The attention to detail pays off—whether it's Strawberry Crème or Toasted Amaretto or the unadorned original recipe, each bite is toothsome and creamy, full of "I really shouldn't, but. . . ." flavor. After all these years, does the factory-made cheesecake taste the same to her as the prototypes her mom cooked up back in that Govans kitchen? Posé nods. "It's the same recipe," she repeats.
The business has expanded considerably since its inception, but if there's any doubt that success hasn't spoiled Original Cheesecake Posé, Inc., it's that even though 99 percent of their business is volume wholesale, anybody can walk in off the street and buy a cake. In fact, if Posé isn't busy, she'll gladly pull out the price list and let visitors know what's available that day—a level of customer service you don't often get from the president of a company. It's just part of making sure everyone who comes to the Mrs. Posé Bakery leaves happy. "We pamper our customers," Posé smiles. "There aren't a lot of bakeries around like us any more."