Diane Mastrull: Home-baked to wholesale

Co-owners Jay Roseman (left) and Barry Kratchman bought Classic Cake in 2006. For 12 years after the murder of co-founder Carol Neulander, the bakery had a variety of owners, and, some say, product quality slipped. Today, it has $9.5 million in annual sales, with retail only a small portion.
Co-owners Jay Roseman (left) and Barry Kratchman bought Classic Cake in 2006. For 12 years after the murder of co-founder Carol Neulander, the bakery had a variety of owners, and, some say, product quality slipped. Today, it has $9.5 million in annual sales, with retail only a small portion. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)

Classic Cake's troubled, inconsistent trek to success.

Posted: October 10, 2011

Nearly 30 years after it was established, Classic Cake is now based in Philadelphia, not South Jersey. But it still bears the original name - an acknowledgment by current owners of its long, positive run indulging scores of sweet teeth.

A gruesome, high-profile murder gave it notoriety, as well.

On a November night in 1994, Carol Neulander, 52, one of Classic Cake's three founders, was bludgeoned to death in her Cherry Hill home by two men hired by her rabbi husband, Fred J. Neulander. At the time, she was managing Classic Cake, having sold it with her partners in 1987 after overseeing its evolution from a home-kitchen-based bakery to a successful wholesale business.

For 12 years after Neulander's death, Classic Cake would have an inconsistent journey, with a variety of owners opening and closing retail sites throughout the region and, some say, with product quality slipping.

When investors Barry Kratchman, Jay Roseman, Bret Gold, and Mitchell Feigenbaum bought the business in November 2006, Classic Cake had three retail locations, 55 employees, and $3.5 million in annual sales - and was in bankruptcy.

Today, with 110 employees and $9.5 million in annual sales, retail is only a small part of Classic Cake's portfolio. It is a national manufacturer, with expectations that "much further growth" is going to occur on that side of the business, Kratchman said, as it also remains a reliable local confections provider.

"Who knows where we can go?" said Kratchman, 47, the company's president and chief operating officer. "We're certainly optimistic we can do well over $15 million in the next three to four years."

No more than 12 percent of Classic Cake's annual revenue is from its retail outposts - now down to two, in Cherry Hill and Washington Township. A bigger, cafe-style shop where customers can sit and enjoy dessert while watching pastry experts and chocolatiers at work is on the drawing board for Philadelphia next year.

"Right now, we don't want to do too much to interfere with building infrastructure to be able to produce on a national level," said Roseman, who also is a partner with Kratchman in an artisan-breads company, American Harvest Baking in Mount Laurel.

Starting six months ago and expecting to run through the next six, Classic Cake is spending close to $1 million on equipment and building improvements at its headquarters/factory at Castor and East Sedgley Avenues, "so we can become as efficient as possible," Kratchman said "and continue to increase our quality."

With tweaking by executive chef Robert Bennett, former pastry wizard at the esteemed Le Bec-Fin, some Carol Neulander-era recipes from Classic Cake - including the raved-about pineapple-infused carrot cake - are now part of an expanded line of waist-challenging concoctions served on casino buffets and college campuses, at country clubs, and at some of Philadelphia's largest hotels.

Sales from the company's wholesale business jumped 40 percent from 2009 to 2010, Kratchman said, mostly from its national distribution of frozen products. Chief among them: cheesecakes, which make up 95 percent of Classic Cake's national business and 55 percent of its sales overall, he said.

The planned capital improvements include automation that will enable cheesecake production to increase from the current rate of 10,000 per day to as many as 15,000, Kratchman said.

The cheesecake might be divine. But the undisputable Classic Cake favorite of Keith Mitchell, executive chef at Caesars Atlantic City? "I love their key lime pie!"

Mitchell was a cook's apprentice at Le Bec-Fin when Bennett was the pastry chef there in the early 1990s. So deciding to feature pies, cakes, cookies, tarts, and more made by Classic Cake under Bennett's direction at Caesars' buffet and players' club seemed "a natural," Mitchell said.

"They're just an amazing group of very talented craftsmen," he said of Bennett and his team at Classic Cake, who are also called on to produce for special events at Caesars, including celebrity birthdays. "It can be challenging at times. They rise to each challenge."

Perhaps the ultimate challenge for Classic Cake - which also has clients in Japan and is looking to develop other international accounts - is to not lose touch with its base.

That is, the local customers, some dating to the Neulander years, who still boast about wedding and bar mitzvah cakes from Classic Cake. (Its products are pareve kosher.)

As the company achieves economic success on the wholesale side, "it's very gratifying," Kratchman said. "But one of the things we enjoy is coming to the stores and seeing the human side of what we do."

When a child sees a birthday cake and breaks into a smile, he said, "that's when you really know you're doing something important."

Among those delighted to see there is a new life for Classic Cake is Judy Stern of Voorhees, one of the three original founders.

"I'm glad that it survived," said Stern, now a culinary consultant whose baking is limited to family affairs. "I always felt we gave root to something really extraordinary."

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or @mastrud on Twitter.

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