Makeover served up to Miami Springs cheesecake bakery

Ever since Milo Irsula, 35, was a child, he and his family dreamed of owning a restaurant. But over the years, life got in the way, and he, his father and two brothers instead ended up living in various corners of the world, including North Carolina and Peru.

“I think for the Irsula family we always thought that our passion for owning a restaurant that specialized in delicious desserts wasn’t ever going to be realized,” said Irsula, who had been a middle-school teacher in North Carolina before his father bought the business. “We called it our ‘pie-in-the-sky dream’ and even joked about it over the years as we moved around the world and started our lives.”

But the stars aligned for the family in 2012 when Irsula’s father, Orlando, decided to purchase a small, family-owned bakery that had been in business in Miami Springs for more than 40 years.

“My dad saw a great opportunity with this family-owned” business, Irsula said. “It was stable, had solid, long-term contracts and homemade recipes for some terrific cheesecakes and key lime pies. And of course, once my dad bought the business, he got our whole family involved in it right away to help grow it.”

Irsula’s father summoned his sons to Miami six months after purchasing the bakery, and the family went to work, learning as they went along.

“We really didn’t know what we were doing,” Irsula said. “My brother Erick was working in the travel industry in Peru and I was a schoolteacher in North Carolina. But we learned very quickly how difficult it is to be a small-business owner, managing the company, marketing it and doing everything else in between.”

Once my dad bought the business, he got our whole family involved in it right away to help grow it. Milo Irsula, son of Orlando Irsula, who owns Cheesecake, Etc. in Miami Springs

For the next four years, the Irsula family focused on keeping the solid clientele that Cheesecake, Etc. had, finding ways to improve the business and trying out new products. In 2015, the company grossed over $500,000 in sales. In addition to Milo, his brother Erick and father Orlando, the Irsulas employ two full-time staffers who work in production, where Erick runs the show.

In late 2015, when Milo Irsula attended a brand-building workshop held by SCORE— a national nonprofit organization of volunteers who have been successful entrepreneurs and have built thriving businesses — he realized he could get free advice to help him grow the business.

“The workshop, led by SCORE counselor Orlando Espinosa, really inspired me,” Irsula said. “The workshop helped me to understand that although Cheesecakes, Etc. had been in business for 40 years, we would have to spend time creating a solid brand that showcases the quality of our products.”

At the SCORE workshop, Irsula introduced Espinosa to his company and discussed the needs of his business. Soon after, Espinosa worked with the Miami Herald to facilitate a Small Business Makeover.

The Irsulas turned to the Miami Herald to help them find efficient ways to promote and grow Cheesecake, Etc. The Herald, in turn, partnered with Miami SCORE. SCORE volunteers use their entrepreneurial skills and offer mentoring services to small business owners free of charge. SCORE identified three counselors to help Cheesecake, Etc. streamline operations, promote the company on social media and find ways to maximize growth opportunities for the business.

The SCORE team included Jane Muir, an attorney at Gersten Muir, a local law firm, specializing in contracts and civil litigation. Rafael Iglesias is a new SCORE counselor who specializes in social media. He was in the world of advertising for 15 years and worked for a local agency. He serves as social media manager for a variety of businesses, including Parawood of the Americas, a provider of Parawood flooring. Doug Shavel is the CEO of Galante Studio Distribution and also runs Shavel Realty, a real estate investment firm.

After working with Cheesecake, Etc. for just over three weeks, the counselors helped the firm understand more about their business and how to run it efficiently. The counselors agreed that after 41 years, the Cheesecake, Etc. brand needed a facelift and some good old-fashioned word-of-mouth via social media to help promote the company and increase sales. To accomplish these goals, the counselors recommended the following:

Dedicate time to managing social media: “In this day and age, if you’re a business owner, you’ve got to have a presence on social media,” Iglesias said. “For Cheesecake, Etc. they need to dedicate time to managing their social media platforms including niche food networks.”

The Irsulas agreed, but according to Milo, none of them had time to spare.

“We have pages set up on social networks,” Irsula said. “But we haven’t posted anything because none of us really have the time to develop the content.”

But Iglesias wasn’t convinced and showed the Irsulas how they can incorporate tools like Hootsuite, a social media management system, into their routine to save time.

“Small-business owners can’t afford not to utilize social media to promote their products,” Iglesias said. “It’s an affordable way to showcase and sell directly to consumers.”

Iglesias recommended that to start out, the company should focus on three social networks for now — Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

In this day and age, if you’re a business owner, you’ve got to have a presence on social media. Rafael Iglesias, social media expert

Iglesias also suggested claiming their company page through Yelp for Business, which allows small business owners to engage with customers with reviews and special promotions.

“Yelp is a hub for consumers who want to inform others about their experiences with businesses and brands,” Iglesias said. “It’s important for Cheesecake, Etc. to take control of their brand, both off and online.”

Explore ways to incorporate e-commerce: The SCORE counselors suggested that Cheesecake, Etc. revamp its website to power e-commerce and online sales.

“Cheesecake, Etc. needs to take a look at options in terms of selling its products online,” Shavel said. “It’s an untapped revenue stream that should be quick and easy for the company to set up.”

But the Irsulas had been down that road before with poor results because they couldn’t find a solution for the high cost of shipping.

“We tried to sell online a couple of years back,” Milo Irsula said. “We had issues because it’s really expensive to ship the product, which is frozen. It needs to be shipped in dry ice, and before you know it, you’re asking people to pay $50 for a cheesecake.”

Shavel recommended exploring alternative shipping options including using a co-packer and bringing costs down.

The Irsulas are already hard at work developing new and interesting takes on cheesecake, including introducing flavors such as salted caramel with pecan and another infused with Guinness Stout. The company is also looking at a cheesecake-in-a-cup concept that may prove profitable.

“Outsourcing production to a third party is an option that could lead to a significant savings for the company and increase profitability,” Shavel said.

Streamline operations: Becoming more efficient and finding ways to streamline processes was an area where the company needed help. Shavel offered advice on how reconfiguring their facility would make things run more smoothly.

“Their current space in Miami Springs is adequate, but it needs to be rearranged,” Shavel said. “And right now, they are on a year-to-year lease so renovating wouldn’t be prudent. You would only invest in renovation if you have a 10-year lease for example.”

Muir recommended taking a look at vendor contracts to determine where the company can realize savings or make the contracting process more efficient.

“It’s a good idea to review contracts,” said Muir, who received a Most Productive Young Attorney Award from the Florida Bar in 2015. “This is especially true when a business has been purchased and existing contracts were part of the sale as it was with Cheesecake, Etc.”

Muir recommended looking at terms such as payment times, invoice cycles and liability. She also suggested going over any contract extensions and clauses related to cancellation of the contract.

Develop a new logo: Each of the SCORE counselors advised the company to invest in revamping their decades-old logo.

“We knew that something had to be done with the brand to improve it,” Irsula said. “The idea of creating a new logo that honors the nostalgia of the past came to mind.”

Muir agreed and encouraged the family to develop and trademark their new logo.

“When you create something and it’s out in the public domain, you need to protect it,” Muir said. “It’s important to trademark your brand identity so that you are in control of how it’s used.”

Iglesias recommended using the journey of creating a new brand identity as content to fuel social media feeds.

“It would be great for them to use social media to document the process of creating the new logo and developing a new brand,” Iglesias said. “Solicit ideas from fans and followers and offer treats like a coupon for a free slice of cheesecake. This will improve engagement and improve brand recognition.”

Grow distribution channels: Over the next three to five years, Cheesecake, Etc. wants to grow beyond selling their dessert creations wholesale to bring their products direct to consumers in supermarkets and restaurants around the country.

“We would love to get into grocery stores, cafes and mall kiosks,” Irsula said. “But it’s a competitive market and we weren’t really sure how to get started. Working with SCORE I think we have a better understanding of what it takes.”

Each SCORE counselor committed to continuing their work with the Irsulas and Cheesecake, Etc. to see the advice through.

“He’s got a solid business,” Iglesias said. “He needs to work on spreading the word and innovating for the future.”

The Irsulas are already hard at work developing new and interesting takes on cheesecake, including introducing flavors such as salted caramel with pecan and another infused with Guinness Stout. The company is also looking at a cheesecake-in-a-cup concept that may prove profitable.

“We already sell key lime pie in a cup,” Irsula said. “Cheesecake is the natural evolution of that.”

The Irsulas said they plan to continue the work they started with SCORE and focus on the solutions presented by the counselors as they continue finding ways to expand and innovate.

“That’s the part of the business that I love the most,” Irsula said. “Working with my dad and my brother Erick to create something that hasn’t been done before is a great perk of working in this business.”

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