Grand Junction, Colorado
Industry: Food & Beverage
Products: Desserts and condiments
Founder Lee Mathis manufactures his trademark (and trademarked) "Cheesecake in a Jar" along with an award-winning sauce.
Mathis, a New Jersey shore native, possesses what he likes to call a "boardwalk sales personality." At Colorado wine festivals (his business regularly tables at them over the course of the year), he'll get to work, enticing people to sample his line of food products. "I like showing off what we do," he says jovially.
Mathis also possesses a registered trademark on the phrase "Cheesecake in a Jar." Ask him to discuss his business' origins, and he'll tell you how he happened upon his unique packaging style: several tablespoons of scrumptious dessert that's been baked into a small Mason jar.
When Mathis returned to school at age 51, he studied culinary arts at Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University). As a student, he wowed one of his teachers with his Vermont maple cheesecake.
To hear Mathis tell it, one day a school adviser handed him a jar and said, "You should put your cheesecake in [this]."
"You're nuts!" replied Mathis. But the "nutty" idea got him thinking about the possibility.
Two weeks later, Mathis walked into the adviser's office with a cheesecake in a jar. "You mean like this?" he asked.
"You know, you're nuts!" came the delighted reply.
Today, Mathis ships his jarred cheesecakes to customers across the country, as well as making sales at a variety of festivals, and maintaining select retail accounts with a variety of businesses in Western Colorado -- and even San Francisco. The business has survived the closing of retail partners after the financial crash, as well as a terminated venture into Virginia, which had required Mathis to drive there from Colorado twice a month. Mathis says of his company, which celebrated its 15th anniversary last year, "There's one reason we survived -- and that's the flavor of our cheesecakes." He adds, "We're expanding again."
Individual cheesecake flavors include Strawberry NY Style, Red Velvet, and Tiramisu, as well as Chocolate Chai, Mango Habanero, and one he calls The Boardwalk (which includes the addition of Peanut Butter Salt Water Taffy from Shriver's Salt Water Taffy in Ocean City, New Jersey). "I think my forte is flavor development," says Mathis. That extends, as well, to his jarred items with flavors like Roasted Garlic and Bacon & Blue Cheese: "We call them 'savory craft spreads' -- they're cheesecakes!"
But what makes them "The Most Decadent Cheesecakes on Earth"?
"The ingredients," Mathis replies. "We don't skimp." He calls Philadelphia brand cream cheese "the only cream cheese I'd ever use for a cheesecake," before adding, "We use real eggs. We don't use egg powder. . . . We use unsalted butter. We don't take the shortcuts that a lot of the other businesses do."
Apparently, going the extra mile has paid off. In 2008, the company took second place at the Spirit of Innovation Awards. Mathis says he was told, "You're the only Colorado company to ever place that high -- and the smallest company to ever place that high." The big winner that year? Kraft Foods.
In 2015, the company took first and second place awards in two separate categories at the Chile Pepper Awards. Those honors went to Mathis' Colorado-Style Southern Chow. It's a "sweet heat relish" that's made with "two kinds of roasted bell peppers, onions, five kinds of hot peppers (super-hot ones are 'tamed'), green cabbage and four kinds of spices." Mathis supplies customers with a variety of printed recipes -- for example, "Chow Chow Deviled Eggs" and "Chow Chow Tartar Sauce" -- and he's even got a Chow Chow cookbook in mind.
Mathis, 66, is back to where he started, job-wise: making food. In his younger days in Atlantic City, he used to flip pizzas and silver dollar pancakes. Now, for over 15 years, he's been manufacturing cheesecakes and Chow Chow in Grand Junction at the Business Incubator Center.
With a well-oiled sales pitch, he makes people laugh -- and his cheesecakes have even caused people to moan decadently after sampling them, Mathis reports. "People smile when they eat my food," he says.
Challenges: "Being in western Colorado," says Mathis. "It's not a major market." If the company didn't have quite so high shipping costs -- and was based in New York City (or even Denver) -- "our sales would be tenfold, minimum, of what they are." Still, there's a reason for the locale he's chosen: "I've seen the lights of the big city -- I choose to live out in Palisade, because it's not that."
Opportunities: Mathis says, "As good as the cheesecakes are, the Chow Chow has an easier path to becoming a national brand," due to being shelf-stable -- as opposed to the cheesecake. He adds, "There are people out there that want to get the next great food product."
Needs: "Finding the right person or company to either invest -- or to take over the operation," says Mathis.