Cheesecake, an immigrant fable

cheesecake-immigrant-fable
D'Aiuto, on 8th Avenue. (Alex Rabb)
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New York is filled with ghosts of anachronistic businesses, left behind by technology or rising rents or apathy; fading away tragically, closing up shop, transforming into something hardly recognizable. D’Aiuto is not one of those businesses.

Founded by Italian immigrants a generation ago and once among the biggest producers of cheesecake in the city, the business has dwindled over the years and now has a second lease on life, thanks to a man named Ajay Patel.

You've likely seen the D'Aiuto storefront if you’ve walked down 8th Avenue just south of Penn Station, past a string of low-rent XXX shops and steam-table buffets. D-'-A-I-U-T-O, the sign reads in blocky hot-pink capital letters. One on side of the neon lettering is a bleached-out picture of a naked baby grinning on its stomach; on the other is a faded slogan, in quotes: “The Best Cheesecake On Earth.”

This is the last remaining vestige of the Baby Watson empire, a kingdom built upon cream cheese nearly a century ago. D’Aiuto’s, aka New York, New York Cheesecake (more on that in a minute), is the inventor of the Baby Watson cheesecake, a crust-free version of the iconic New York pastry.

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THE NAMESAKE D'AIUTOS WERE LUCA AND ANNA, Italian immigrants who opened a bakery on the ground-floor of their 25th Street apartment in 1924. Their son Mario took over in the 1970s and pioneered a new marketing campaign for his family’s cheesecake, based around a picture of himself as baby. (Mario claimed customers had difficulty with his family’s ethnic name, so he invented “Baby Watson” on the fly, after discovering his old portrait in his attic).

At its peak in the 1970s, the family-run bakery had five storefronts (the flagship was at 8th Avenue and 52nd Street), a franchise in Boston and a West Side Highway warehouse that supplied dozens of wholesale accounts across the city. They ran charmingly earnest TV ads. Then, the D'Aiutos were pumping out close to 20,000 cheesecakes in a single day, and reportedly went through 38,000 eggs a day.

Under Mario's stewardship, the business hit $20 million a year, but in 1998, D’Aiuto sold the name “Baby Watson” to New Jersey-based Mother’s Kitchen, one of the largest cheesecake manufacturers in the industry.

Then, around 2006, Mario’s health began a slow decline. The bakery warehouse and most of the storefronts had closed, leaving only the 8th Avenue and 30th Street location. Mario’s wife, whose career at one point was managing nightclubs in Manhattan, took over the business for a few years, but struggled to take care of both Mario and the store.

They still have a loyal following. Today, the store cannot legally use the term “Baby Watson cheesecake.” What they say instead is “creators of the Baby Watson cheesecake,” which is close enough to keep the wholesale buyers at local diners and delis satisfied. Most of the retail shoppers—the Post Office employees from next door, the T.C.I. students, the old-timers who come in before their New Jersey Transit or LIRR trains to the suburbs—call it D’Aiuto’s. Whatever name they use, most come for the same thing, bypassing the rows of rainbow cookies and beelining straight for the ultra-creamy, hyper-rich cheesecake, the recipe for which hasn’t changed in decades.

But the company was down to making about 150 cheesecakes a day, and with Mario's illness and the demands of the business putting a strain on Mario's wife, they put the building, which the family owns, and the business on the market.

THAT'S WHEN AJAY PATEL'S BROTHER-in-law, whom Patel describes as a real-estate whiz with an eye for finding properties on the verge, saw the building was for sale while walking down the street on a Friday afternoon this spring. He immediately called Patel.

“Everything he touches turns to gold,” said Patel. “We wanted the building for its location. New York is growing. Things are moving to 8th Avenue. The Post Office is going to turn into Amtrak, and 6th and 7th Avenues are already packed, so where do you think everyone will go, yeah?”

Within a week, the two had closed the deal.

“It was one of the fastest sales ever,” said Patel with a touch of pride.

The catch: Mario’s wife wanted whoever took over the building to keep the business intact.

"It’s a sentimental thing for their family,” explained Patel. “I’d never heard of Baby Watson before."

Patel, 44, who was born in Nairobi and grew up in India and England, took over the D’Aiuto’s operation pretty much immediately. A former I.T. manager with 20 years managing 200 employees at TD Bank under his belt, Patel admits that he knew nothing about baking when he bought the building that houses the bakery, but promises that his management skills will turn things around for the historic business, especially as the neighborhood is revitalized by the impending Hudson Yards and Penn Station redevelopment projects.

“I figure it’s easier to learn how to make cheesecake than how to run a successful business,” he said.

It took some of the staffers time to warm to Patel, especially since Mario D’Aiuto left some rather large shoes to fill.

“[Mario] D’Aiuto was so funny, so intelligent,” said counter-staffer Anya Szczbiot, who started at the store in 1985. “He spoke three languages. He could talk to the President and he could talk to the bum on the street. And he worked with the bakers for so many years—he was like a father to a lot of them.”

Patel barely knew D’Aiuto, but he’s kept the operation largely intact, encouraging employees to carry on as they have for years, and arriving at the store every morning before sunrise to understand its daily rhythms. He takes a hands-on approach, tackling everything from cleaning to deliveries in the attempt to run things smoothly. But he's not messing with the basics.

"It’s nice to know in a new business that you have a customer base already built in,” Patel told me.

That means, for instance, that Elias Solis, who has baked almost every cheesecake the store has sold for the past 12 years, is still the gatekeeper of the operation.

“He’s the only one we trust,” said Patel, half joking.

A SOFT-SPOKEN IMMIGRANT FROM PUEBLA, Mexico, Solis arrives at work around 5 a.m. every morning to start breaking giant bricks of cream cheese into smaller, more manageable chunks. Working with an 80-gallon standing mixer, he adds about 150 pounds of cream cheese, plus 60 pounds of sour cream, six and half gallons of eggs, sugar and heavy cream to the bowl. It takes an hour of steady mixing before the batter is smooth.

“The recipe has never changed in the time I’ve been here,” Solis said. “No crust. That’s why they call it the creamiest cheesecake.”

Once the batter is ready, Solis ladles it into baking pans using a small bucket. There’s a practiced motion to his pouring, a knee-bend and wrist-twist that allows him to neatly dispatch the entire 80-gallon bowl in a matter of minutes. Then it’s over to the oven, a hulking gas contraption with doors that open horizontally and a rotating carousel of five shelves. The oven is kept at 400 degrees, and Solis loads up the shelves according to pan size. The larger seven-inch pans will take two hours to cook, the smaller one an hour or hour and a half.

Most of the cakes are baked plain, with toppings—Oreo crumbles, strawberry syrup—added later, but Solis has experimented with a few seasonal flavors mixed directly into the batter, too: a red velvet version colored with beets, a pumpkin variety for fall, a tropical banana concoction. On a typical weekday, he’ll bake around 150 cheesecakes—a far cry from the bakery’s heyday, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

Some of the cakes are delivered to nearby delis and diners, while others simply take a short trip to the retail area in front of the kitchen, where they’re displayed beneath yellowing newspaper clippings and the original portrait of Mario D’Aiuto as a baby.

“When I first started, I had the staff move all of the pastries to a clean tray for display” said Patel. “But the customers don’t like that; they think it’s old product. They want to see that it just came out of the oven. They want to see the metal baking trays and the wax paper.”

He relented, and the storefront retains its retro aesthetic, complete with taupe-hued linoleum floors and fluorescent lights.

Appearances aside, the company is progressing, and the changes Patel is making are just enough to put a new stamp on the business. Staffers answer the phone with “Hello, New York Cheesecake,” and they recently added eggless cookies for vegans and gluten-free cheesecakes to their offerings. Patel is also developing some Indian-flavored cheesecakes to reflect his heritage; popular test batches include Alphonso mango and pistachio-saffron-flavored versions.

As for the future, Patel is optimistic. He’s looking at buying another bakery in Bay Ridge soon, and his 12-year-old son wakes up early on Saturday mornings to help in the D’Aiuto kitchens.

“I do forsee this being a family business for me,” said Patel. And so the legacy of the Baby Watson cheesecakes continues, barreling into the future buck-naked and grinning.