Slideshow: Junior's moves beyond the Big Apple

by Dan Malovany
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For Alan Rosen, owner of Junior’s Restaurant, simple pleasures are just that. Take the ingredients for making what the company calls a Brooklyn original and touts as the “most fabulous” New York cheesecake.

First, it starts with a sponge cake, not a graham cracker crust, although the company makes that upon request. “You take about ¼-in. layer of the nicest birthday cake you can ever have, and put it on the bottom of every cheesecake,” Mr. Rosen explained.

But what is the primary key to a good cheesecake? “Simple. Simple,” Mr. Rosen repeated. “It’s Philadelphia cream cheese, fresh eggs, sugar, heavy cream, corn starch and a touch of vanilla.”

That’s it. Don’t believe it? Google the recipe on the Internet or check it out in one of four cookbooks that the family-owned company sells at its four restaurants and retail bakeries in New York City, a casino in Connecticut and, most recently, in Boca Raton in South Florida — often referred to as the “sixth” borough because of the number of snowbirds who live down there.

But there’s a catch to making Junior’s cheesecakes, which Mr. Rosen described as light, creamy and not too dense. “What really makes a difference is the blending and the care and the attention to details,” he pointed out. “We like to think the water bath during the baking makes a difference. The ovens we use and the quality of the ingredients — we think it all adds into this ‘formula’ that results in New York’s finest cheesecake.”

Since the company was founded on Election Day in 1950 (won by Dwight Eisenhower) by Alan Rosen’s grandfather, Harry Rosen, on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Junior’s cheesecake — developed by master baker Eigel Petersen — has remained the same. “Name one thing that hasn’t changed one bit in 66 years,” Mr. Rosen said, adding, “I’m not going to be the schmuck who changes that recipe.”

During the past 18 months, however, Junior’s has evolved in a big way. First, the company transitioned from its 18,000-sq-ft wholesale ­bakery in Queens — yes, the “Brooklyn original” was wholesaled out of there — into a 103,000-sq-ft facility more than five times its size in Burlington, NJ.

That move has allowed Junior’s to expand into the in-store bakery channel, the foodservice arena and even the retail freezer case with its branded cheesecakes packaged in its nostalgic, orange-and-white striped boxes.

That’s on top of its mail-order business, which dates back to the pre-Internet days and its 21-year relationship with QVC, the home shopping network, where displaced New Yorkers and millions of others can get their cheesecake fix.

In many ways, Junior’s success is not beginner’s luck. Rather, it’s all about old becoming new again for the venerable company. “We’re rookies at this new business, but I believe the things that made us successful in the restaurant business will make us successful in this [wholesale baking] business,” Mr. Rosen explained. “The quality of our products, and the fact that we have a 66-year history and tradition resonates with people. And by the way, we bake our products the same way people would make them in their homes or I would make in my house for my kids, and we’re proud of that.”

A new automatic production line can now output up to 19 cheesecakes a minute.
 

Bakery made to order

Two years ago, Junior’s bakery in Queens operated 24/7 and “couldn’t bake another cake,” according to Mr. Rosen. Bakers danced between racks and shuttled products in and out of its tiny freezer just to meet demand for its restaurants, bakeries and a few wholesale accounts.

The commercial bakery’s new home couldn’t have been a better fit at a more opportune time. Located about 65 miles as the crow flies from NYC — 80 miles from the George Washington Bridge, if you’re a local — the facility had been a Mother’s Kitchen cheesecake bakery that recently closed when Rich Products moved the operation from suburban Philadelphia to Texas.

Even better, Mr. Rosen was familiar with the ­operation. In the 1990s, Junior’s needed to fulfill a large order for QVC and co-packed there while Mr. Rosen and his operations team supervised production. “When I heard this building was available, I had a certain comfort level with it because I’ve been here before,” he said. “You love what you know, if you know what I mean.”

After buying it in late 2014, Junior’s spent six months remodeling the facility, adding a retail outlet, rebuilding 12 existing revolving tray ovens and purchasing new mixers, depositors and other equipment. This year, the bakery is expected to turn out 3 ­million full-size cheesecakes compared with just 2 million at its previous plant. Including minis, the bakery will produce 5 million desserts overall, noted Jason Schwartz, general manager of the operation. With selected automation, he added, the bakery could eventually double its output to 10 million items annually.

The initial growth has been primarily due to the company’s penetration into the in-store bakery, retail freezer case and the foodservice channel, which together account for about 80% of the plant’s volume. The remainder is sold in Junior’s restaurants and retail bakeries. Junior’s branded cheesecakes comprise about 85% of its wholesale volume with the remainder sold as private label, according to Mr. Schwartz.

In its first full year at the Burlington operation, Junior’s indulgent desserts can be found in 3,000 stores mainly throughout New England, south along the East Coast and west stretching into parts of the Midwest. Over the next year, the company plans to further expand in the Southeast, according to Rich McKenzie, national sales manager.

Overall, Junior’s reportedly has about $75 million in annual revenue with restaurant revenue included. When Baking & Snack visited Junior’s in August, Mr. Rosen noted sales for the nascent, $19 million wholesale division were trending up 25% year-to-date. He insisted business remains focused on steady, organic growth.

“We don’t want to conquer the world in a day,” he stressed. “We’ve been practicing for [more than] 65 years.”

In five years, the wholesale division’s goal is to be five times its size. “If we’re four times, I wouldn’t be upset,” Mr. Rosen said.

New mixers with PLC controls allow Junior’s to produce more classic cheesecakes with enhanced consistency.
 

‘Little Fellas’ and big cakes

Without a doubt, Junior’s top-seller is the original 6-in. cheesecake, but the bakery cranks out a lot more varieties than are found on the company brochures or even its website. In fact, Mr. Rosen estimated the dessert operation turns out more than 100 different SKUs ranging from mini, 4-oz “Little Fellas” cheesecakes in flavors of Devil’s Food, Carrot Cake and Raspberry Swirl to seasonal specials.

Its renowned 10-in., multilayer cakes, commonly called skyscrapers, weigh 10 to 12 lb each. “They’re called skyscrapers because they are so tall. Besides, New York and skyscrapers go together,” said Mr. Schwartz, who spent four months, seven-days-a-week setting up the Burlington operation.

Some of Junior’s specialty desserts combine the best of both worlds. “You have a New York-style cheesecake inside of a carrot cake or a plain cheesecake inside a chocolate layer cake,” Mr. Rosen noted. “It’s almost like two cakes in one.”

However, Mr. McKenzie pointed out the company’s wholesale portfolio is more channel-specific and typically limited to five to 12 cheesecake varieties. In retail, the 6-in. cheesecake as well as the Little Fellas are most popular.

“The Little Fellas are flying in the retail trade,” he said. “People try them as a sample, then move up to the 6-in. one.”

The most popular mail-order cheesecakes range from 8- to 10-in. styles, while pre-sliced 10-in. foodservice cheesecakes check in at 6 lb. Junior’s frozen desserts have a 9- to 12-month shelf life, or 14-days when refrigerated.

Overall, the facility houses five semi-automated production and three packaging lines. The bakery — actually three buildings under one roof — allots 53,000 sq ft for processing, 30,000 sq ft for packaging, 15,000 sq ft of warehousing and 5,000 sq ft for offices, QA labs and the retail store. The plant has six walk-in blast freezers set at various temperatures for different products. A bulk ingredient refrigerator handles many of the fresh ingredients, including about 55,000 lb of cream cheese that it uses every week. Perhaps the biggest feature is the 500-pallet storage freezer that eliminates the need for third-party cold storage for the foreseeable future.

Junior’s uses a traditional water-bath process when baking its signature cheesecakes in a revolving oven.
 

Hands-on automation

Junior’s has been very selective in investing in technology. As Mr. McKenzie observed, “The only thing that’s different is we’re making cheesecakes in large quantities now.”

The facility is divided into three areas: one for mixing, depositing and baking; a second for packaging; and a third as a temperature-controlled decorating area. In all, the bakery has 10 mixers including one Tonelli, seven Hobart and two new Topos Mondial mixers that now do the bulk of the batter blending.

During the startup of the wholesale bakery, Junior’s ran cheesecake batter side-by-side with its new PLC-controlled Topos spiral paddle mixers and its existing Hobart mixers to ensure the critical blending process replicated the exact texture, aeration and flavor from the old bakery.

In many ways, Mr. Rosen stressed, the quality of its cheesecakes is even greater than in the past, partly because the new computer controls on the Topos mixers ensure greater consistency.

“We now are getting the same results that we were getting for 66 years, but the consistency and quality is better than ever because we systemized the mixing of our cheesecake using those Topos mixers,” he explained.

After mixing, the bowls are rolled to one of four Unifiller depositors — including a four-nozzle system for making Little Fellas — located throughout the main mixing and baking department. Many specialty, signature or seasonal products such as pumpkin cheesecake receive multiple deposits. In many ways, the company’s reticence to automate is driven by its culture and a “restaurant mentality” to create elegant desserts that are as appealing to the eye as they are to the palate.

“We don’t want to take away that homemade feeling that made us who we are,” Mr. Rosen said. “We’re looking at ways that make sense and don’t affect the overall process or quality of the product.”

That said, Mr. Schwartz noted the company’s growth in frozen cheesecakes provides a natural opportunity to improve production efficiencies. “I’d like to pump out 6-, 8- and 10-in. non-decorated cheesecakes all day long because that’s the most efficient way to operate,” he acknowledged. “You’re depositing it, baking it and packaging it. When you add decorations to the border or holiday decorations, that’s where the extra labor comes in, and it’s more time-consuming, but that’s who we are.”

To streamline its operation and boost capacity, the company recently installed a Colborne Foodbotics semi-automated cheesecake line that produces 17 to 19 cheesecakes a minute. After hand-loading pans that receive a quick spray of oil as a release agent, a line operator places Junior’s signature sponge cake base on the bottom. The line can also mechanically apply a graham cracker base before the cheesecake batter is deposited.

At the end of the line, the round pans are loaded onto large rectangular sheet pans that can hold up to eight 6-in. cheesecakes before they’re racked. In addition to improving production capacity, the line added more accuracy and consistency to the process.

The main bakery currently houses a Revent rack oven and a battery of existing ­revolving-tray ovens — each capable of baking up to 450 6-in. cheesecakes at a time. Prior to baking, operators add about ¼ in. of water to the sheet pan to create a water bath that absorbs heat and provides humidity during the baking process, which typically takes one hour or more. At the new bakery, Mr. Rosen stressed, Junior’s can begin the baking process with a colder batter to create a more consistent and creamy product. “This is how we started making them, and it’s how we’re doing it today,” he said.

Cheesecakes go through a two-hour cool, which stabilizes the internal temperature and prevents cracking during the blast-freezing process. After freezing, they enter the packaging room, which houses three lines. Two lines package retail products, where cakes are overwrapped in plastic film, pass through a Mettler Toledo X-ray machine or a Safeline metal detector. From there, the products enter a Shanklin shrinkwrapper before they’re manually placed in cartons. “The X-ray machine provides us with an extra level of food safety and quality control,” Mr. Rosen said. “It can even tell if the chocolate center of a cake is too thick.”

On the foodservice line, two FoodTools mechanical cutters pre-slice the 10-in. cheesecakes to provide portion control and insert a paper divider between each slice. Overall, the bakery has six cutters. The sliced cheesecakes then go through a Lantech shrinkwrapping and metal detection process. Packaged products are manually casepacked and palletized.

Junior’s bakery also has a temperature-controlled finishing department where a team of decorators hand applies the final — and often elegant — touches to its signature desserts. During Baking & Snack’s visit, two decorators rolled the bakery’s signature frozen skyscraper cakes through chocolate bits, coconut and other toppings to coat them along their sidewalls. Along the main decorating line, a decorator actually used a blowtorch to release the frozen cake from its 10-in. steel rim — one of the many tricks that Junior’s uses throughout the operation. Decorators then hand-apply icing and pipe dollops of buttercream onto various desserts. All icings are made by scratch in Hobart mixers.

Decorators apply icing and toppings to give Junior’s elegant cakes that homemade appeal.
 

True to its heritage

Adjacent to the finishing room, a fourth department with five existing revolving tray ovens is aptly called the “grow room.” Here Junior’s can expand existing capacity or even launch a gluten-free operation, according to Mr. Rosen. “It all depends on where the market takes us,” he said.

Throughout the SQF Level 3 facility, safety — both employee and food — is prevalent in its attention to detail. After baking, for instance, all cake and sheet pans pass through one of two Douglas Machine washers. “In some operations, they may use the pans two or three times before washing,” Mr. Rosen said. “Here, we wash them every time. We’re fanatics about food safety.”

With its foray into retail, Junior’s redesigned its classic orange-and-white boxes by extending the clear plastic window so that consumers can see more of its decorated swirl cheesecakes as well as its holiday-decorated cakes and other seasonal items.

“We’re looking at new domes to show off our products in a better way,” Mr. Schwartz observed. “We feel our customers like to see the whole dessert that they’re buying rather than an enclosed box.”

Automating the process and improving on a Brooklyn original can be a delicate process. Staying true to its founder’s legendary vision and values remains of the highest importance. As Harry Rosen once said, “It’s hard to build a reputation; it’s even harder to keep it.”

It sounds so simple, but it never is. “This is not an act,” his grandson Alan Rosen said. “This is how we are.”

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