For most of his adult life, Tom Ginis has been on the receiving end of compliments from friends who tasted his homemade cheesecake.
“This is my recipe that I developed with my dad,” he recalled. “We had this for over 38 years. For many years, people constantly said, ‘Boy, this is really good — you can go into business with this.’”
Ginis, a mortgage loan officer at Residential Home Funding Corp. in White Plains, appreciated the praise but never believed the flattery over his dessert could be spun into a business endeavor. “About three years ago, we were at a party in Fairfield and we were asked to bring a couple of cakes,” he said. His adult children, Alex and Katie, were with him to absorb the kudos for the cakemaker. “A few weeks later, in 2013, they came up and said, ‘Let’s start the business.’”
The Ginis siblings also have day jobs — Alex is a political programs officer at the Credit Union National Association, a trade group in Washington, D.C., while Katie is an associate digital category manager at Saks Fifth Avenue — and launching a cake business initially was relegated to leisure hours. By the fall of 2014, the family set up Poppy’s Cheesecake in a Milford space shared with a catering company.
Last July, the company signed a lease for its own headquarters in the former Saugatuck Kitchens location on Bridgeport’s Remer Street. Ginis estimated the startup costs were a “few thousand dollars,” with expenses kept low by the turnkey aspect of their locations and the DIY nature of the family operation.
Poppy’s Cheesecake is named for Tom Ginis’ father Harry, a longtime maître d’ at New York’s fashionable Barbizon-Plaza Hotel; he was dubbed “Poppy” by his grandchildren, who were not able to pronounce the Greek “Papou.” (The elder Ginis passed away in 2005 at the age of 84.) While Ginis would not share the specifics of the family recipe, he highlighted a key difference between his cheesecake and the supermarket variety.
“We’re a classic New York-style cheesecake, the kind you would have if you went down into Manhattan back in the day,” he said. “It is very dense with cream. Younger people never really had this type of cheesecake. Nowadays, a lot of cheesecakes are more aired up — you don’t get the same density. And with ours, you don’t need a big slice to be satisfied, unless you really love cheesecake and you want a second piece or a third piece.”
Katie Ginis added that their cheesecake includes something missing from many of their competitors’ cakes. “Ours has a wrap-around crust,” she said. “Others either have their crust only on the bottom or they have no crust at all. With us, you get that crust with every bite.”
At the moment, Poppy’s Cheesecake is primarily a wholesale operation with production done on nights and weekends by father and daughter; D.C.-based Alex is focused on the company’s legal and financial concerns. “With just the two of us, one cake takes less than 10 minutes (to make) from start to finish,” said Katie. “Once we’re in motion, it goes pretty fast.”
The year-round product line includes regular and chocolate cheesecake, with a pumpkin-flavored offering in autumn and a key lime-flavored cake prepared for spring and summer. New flavored varieties, including peanut butter and sea salt caramel, are in the works. In addition to the standard seven- and 10-inch cakes, the company sells a cupcake-size “mini” and half-dollar-size “bite” version of their dessert.
Poppy’s Cheesecake has clients in restaurants, country clubs, catering companies and special-events vendors across Fairfield and Westchester counties. The Webster Bank Arena Executive Suites also offers the product; Tom Ginis was pleased when one suite holder told him the only reason his teenage son comes to the Bridgeport arena is to enjoy the cheesecake.
Still, starting up in the food trade without connections requires extra work in getting noticed, he said.
“We have to go around, introduce ourselves to different owners and chefs and try to get tasting meetings. A lot of places like our products, but we can’t get in there because their chefs already make products that they’re proud of.”
Ginis said the family business trio plans to hire a staff later in the year and expand sales into retail channels — the “mini” cakes are now sold at Southport Spic and Span Market and other retail opportunities are being considered.
Yet the company’s chief concern, Ginis said, was staying true to the family’s time-tested recipe in a mass-produced operation.
“The key part of this is the consistency,” he said. “Everybody wants to have the same experience every time they try our products.”