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The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

The Student News Site of St. Joseph's University

The Hawk News

Philly’s cheesecake connoisseur

The Cheesecake Lady’s Elkins Park location. PHOTO: KELLY SHANNON ’24/THE HAWK

My friend Asia Whittenberger ’22 wouldn’t stop talking about the cheesecakes. Every weekend last semester, it seemed she was posting pictures of cheesecake on Instagram, along with groups of friends from St. Joe’s who she’d taken to The Cheesecake Lady in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania.

“I think the drive and just the experience of going to The Cheesecake Lady is good quality time with my friends,” Whittenberger said. “I know that this is going to be the best cheesecake they’ve ever had.”

Zach Darby ’22 was introduced to The Cheesecake Lady by Whittenberger, who I’m pretty sure should be hired as the official St. Joe’s Cheesecake Lady ambassador. Darby said it lived up to his expectations. 

“It’s literally some of the best cheesecake I’ve had in my entire life,” Darby said. “Bottom line, it tastes really freakin’ good.” 

I love cheesecake, and supporting Black-owned businesses, but Whittenberger had never taken me. So, after some hounding, I convinced her to escort me to The Cheesecake Lady to celebrate the birthday of our friend Samira Touré ’23 last semester.

“I’m really a picky eater, so at first I didn’t like cheesecake in general, because everybody likes cheesecake from the Cheesecake Factory,” Touré said. “So I was very particular about it … but this one, I don’t know what they do to it, but it’s very light and fluffy, and it’s not too overwhelming. When you take one bite, you want to keep eating more of it.”

We arrived around 10 a.m. when the shop opened, and there was already a long line. This is typical, with people lining up as early as 8 a.m. Pre-orders aren’t allowed, so you have to show up in person, and only two to three people are allowed inside at a time, because of covid-19 protocols.

The Cheesecake Lady reminded me of a Barbie teacup home (well, Black Barbie) with its pink paint and staff wearing colorful bonnets to fit the motif. 

I couldn’t decide which to try at first, but after a few minutes, I opted for the banana pudding cheesecake and the strawberry cheesecake. Each was $12, so I spent $24 for only two. As soon as we got back in the car, we started eating them.

The strawberry cheesecake melted on my tongue and rendered me breathless. The cake’s thickness was perfect, silky and sweet, as if I’d locked it away in paradise and then brought it down again. You could feel the love that went into making that cake. There was nothing but pure emotion. 

Vanessa Jackson, the woman behind The Cheesecake Lady, discovered her love for cheesecake after attending a Christmas dinner in 1999. She had no idea that her first taste of cheesecake would be the beginning of a new adventure.

“When I was in my mid 30s, I tasted cheesecake for the first time, and I fell in love with it,” Jackson told me.

Soon, Jackson, who has a background in fundraising and sales, started making her own cheesecakes, with her aunt Rita offering critique and help as Jackson tweaked the recipes. When friends and family members and people at her church started asking her for them, she developed what she called “a side hustle.”

“It wasn’t anything that I thought I wanted to do, but after working on my career a long time, and with the turnover and getting new bosses and not really liking having bosses anymore, I decided it was time for me to become my own boss,” Jackson said. 

In 2014, Jackson opened her first cheesecake shop, The Cheesecake Lady, in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. In 2018, the shop moved to Elkins Park. 

“It was successful from day one,” Jackson said. 

Jackson just opened another location in Norfolk, Virginia, where her daughter Brittany Jackson lives. Brittany Jackson and her sister Jaime Jackson have been helping their mom run the business, and  Brittany Jackson wants her own shop some day.

Jackson and her crew bake a bunch of cheesecakes every day, so when they’re gone, they’re gone, and the stores close as soon as they sell out. The four-inch cheesecakes are personal-sized. They also sell sampler bites in six and 12 packs. 

“Miniature size is really hard to find,” Jackson said. “Most people do very large cakes that serve a lot of people. Our cakes are a specialty niche.”

Jackson said the most popular flavors are the best-selling Strawberry Shortcake, Birthday Cake, Banana Pudding, Caramel Apple Crunch and Carrot Cake. Her process for thinking of new flavors is “a really intricate part” of her.

 “I pretty much dream cheesecake, believe it or not. I really do dream about it,” Jackson said. “Or somebody might mention a flavor to me. I try to figure out how I can come up with a creative way to draw on our interpretation of it.”

Jackson said she hopes that once she retires, her two children will take over. Already, they’re dreaming up ways to expand the business.

“I think they see it as going into major production and mass-producing to supermarkets and stores and shipping,” Jackson said. “I am getting older and I’m grooming them to take over, so that’s what they want to do with it. That’s fine. As long as they send me my retirement checks!”

The Cheesecake Lady’s Elkins Park location, 910 Township Line Rd., is open every Thursday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., or until cheesecakes are sold out. Whittenberger, who is in the Philadelphia area doing a year of service with AmeriCorps, said she is still available for excursions.

Ally Engelbert 25 contributed to this story.

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