A sweet tribute
Palo Alto baker turns her late friend's recipe into a cheesecake business
Armed with cream cheese, raspberries and a secret recipe, Cherith Spicer is spearheading a venture that's part business and part tribute. At her Namesake Cheesecake kitchen in Menlo Park, she bakes and sells custom cakes from the treasured recipe bequeathed to her by family friend Cherith Lorraine Rickey.
Locals may remember "Mrs. Rickey's Famous Cheesecake" from the Palo Alto restaurants that the late Rickey co-owned with her husband, John, including Dinah's Shack and Rick's Swiss Chalet. Now it's back.
"It keeps their spirit going," Spicer said.
Growing up in Palo Alto, Spicer was friends and neighbors with Rickey, after whom she was named. She was also a big fan of the famous cheesecake. One day, late in her life, Rickey surprised her young friend by giving her the recipe. Rickey had it memorized, and asked her to write it down. "It was like I got the golden ticket from Willy Wonka," Spicer said.
Now the recipe fuels Spicer's business, with the Rickey family's blessing. Last year, she opened Namesake Cheesecake on El Camino Real in downtown Menlo Park, in a space formerly occupied by a catering company.
Behind gauzy red curtains with a peacock pattern, the front showroom space is lively and colorful, with Tiffany-colored walls and a big print of Audrey Hepburn. The back of a huge walk-in refrigerator might have been an intruder into the space, except that a friend of Spicer's who goes by the moniker Black Stamp Studios has painted it in bold graffiti style. The fridge is decorated with a curly-lettered logo and images of the Hoover Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Nearby, tables and chairs sit ready for cake tastings. In back is a sizable kitchen where Spicer bakes and rents space to other commercial kitchens, including a raw-juice business.
The 30-something Spicer lived in Los Angeles for 10 years, acting and modeling, until her father's illness caused her to move back to Palo Alto. After he recovered, he asked her what she was going to do next. Spicer, a longtime baker and woman of many jobs, decided to start her own cheesecake business. It's now her full-time job, and she has two to three people working for her at any given time.
Everything is based on Rickey's own recipe, the origin of which remains mysterious even to Spicer. Though she won't give a lot of details, she does say on her website that the cake consists of "a layer of graham-cracker crust, a cream-cheese layer, topped with a layer of sour cream and sugar." Creating each cake is "a bake-chill process" that takes two days.
"It's rich but it's not heavy. It has a nice balance of sweet with tart. I put fresh lemon juice in it," she said. "It's a classic, traditional cheesecake."
Rickey's big topping flavor was raspberry. Spicer didn't want to mess with the system too much, but she has added a few topping options of her own, including holiday candy and salted caramel. She also bakes a gluten-free version. Prices on her website range from $16 for a plain 6-inch cake to $49 for a 9-inch, gluten-free cake with a homemade topping. Bite-sized options are also available.
Spicer bakes per order and says each cake is special. People order them for holidays, birthdays, weddings and other events. Cheesecake has been taking off at weddings in part because brides have been frequently looking beyond the traditional wedding cake in recent years, she said.
Namesake Cheesecakes are also on the menu at Alice's Restaurant in Woodside, and served as part of the lunch specials at Indochine in Palo Alto. (Interestingly, the Thai/Vietnamese restaurant is one of Spicer's biggest clients.) Her cakes have also been served at the Stanford Park Hotel, the Old Pro, the Menlo Circus Club and other local venues.
Word of mouth has been an effective marketing tool for Spicer, as have her visits to restaurants bearing samples.
So far, Spicer has sold her cakes only locally, but she's looking into starting a shipping side of the business. "I think we'll really expand with shipping."
Meanwhile, local customers continue to come in, often bringing warm memories of the Rickeys. One time, a neighbor of Spicer's was thrilled to bring her a vintage postcard he'd found from the Rick's Swiss Chalet restaurant, Spicer said. "I'll have people stop in all the time who remember them."
Info: Namesake Cheesecake is at 425 El Camino Real in Menlo Park. Go to namesakecheesecake.com or call 650-833-9529.