Today Vanessa Jackson's daughter Brittany, “The Cheesecake Daughter,” runs the store while Vanessa spends up to 16 hours a day creating her now-famous four-inch cheesecakes.
When I was a kid, I must say that my mother was not exactly Julia Childs. She would cook meat until you could make Army boots out of it. But she did make two things that were world class. Once people would eat her chicken soup and/or iced tea, they had to have more. I cannot count the number of people who would say, “You ought to go into business as the iced tea and chicken soup lady!”
That kind of thing sounds silly, but then again, this is the land of opportunity, where anyone with a great product and steel determination has a shot at the brass ring. After all, there is Mrs. Fields, Cinnabon, Famous Amos' chocolate chip cookies and so many more that started in someone's kitchen when someone said, “That is so good. You really should go into business with that.”
And if they can do it, then The Cheesecake Lady may be the next Daisy Cakes (a “Shark Tank” carrot cake sensation). The Cheesecake Lady is Vanessa Jackson, 55, who opened her store at 910 Township Line Rd. in Elkins Park in 2018 after moving it from Jenkintown, where it had been since January 2014, but whose upkeep had become too onerous.
Before taking the advice from so many friends and family members who could not get enough of her cheesecakes, Jackson was director of development for Bethel Deliverance International Church in Cheltenham and assistant director of development of the annual fund at Arcadia University in Glenside, from which she earned a business degree in 2012.
“I got a job at a university so that later my children could get free tuition,” Jackson told us. “My daughter, Jaime, 30 (now a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy), graduated in 2013. I grew up like Will Smith in West Philadelphia, but I was always trying to better myself, and moving meant new opportunities.
“In 1993, when a bullet went through my window, I decided to move to the suburbs. My aunt, Maritta Taylor, the one responsible for my becoming The Cheesecake Lady, and I drove up Route 309 and stopped when we saw the first townhouse community in North Wales. It was where I would buy my first home and give my children real roots.”
A divorced mother of three children and three stepchildren, Jackson used to host family dinners after church on Sunday. Her food was such a draw that it probably increased church attendance. Today it is not unusual for a line to form around the block early in the morning, regardless of weather, for customers hooked on Jackson's 23 flavors of cheesecake.
The top six flavors in order of sales are strawberry shortcake, banana pudding, cherry, fudge brownie, caramel walnut and carrot cake. “My own favorite is strawberry shortcake,” said Jackson, who never even tasted cheesecake until she was 34, “although I recently have been digging the cinnamon roll.”
In 1999 Jackson began baking cheesecakes because it was too expensive to buy cheesecake for herself and her three children at a restaurant. She made her first attempt while on the Atkins Diet. “It was not good because it was made with Equal and not the best ingredients.”
Jackson switched to real sugar and every week would take one of her cheesecakes to her aunt Maritta, the maven, who did not mince any words. At first her aunt was underwhelmed but kept indicating that was progress was being made and that Vanessa should keep trying. Finally, her aunt exclaimed, “That cheesecake! Oh my gosh, can you do it again?” Aunt Maritta paid $25 for the cake.
Before long, Jackson was selling her cheesecake for $3 a slice after church and building up a stable of fans. Today Jackson's daughter, Brittany, 32, “The Cheesecake Daughter,” runs the store while Vanessa spends up to 16 hours a day creating her now-famous four-inch cheesecakes. She makes them that size so she can bake several at the same time.
They are selling hundreds of cakes each day and cannot accept pre-orders.
“Would you please mention that my bonus daughter ('step-daughter'), Jacquelin Jackson-Banks, is one of my key bakers?” (Vanessa also has a son, David, 27, a licensed electrician.) Vanessa also wanted to mention “my best friend of 20 years, Roslyn Robinson, of Mt. Airy,” who told her not to worry about how other bakeries make their products but just to keep doing things her way.
And Vanessa insists she could not have been successful “without God’s grace and favor. I never leave that out, although everyone cuts it out of my interviews.”
The Cheesecake Lady's hours are Thursday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to sellout. More details at phillycheesecakelady.com. Len Lear can be reached at email@example.com.