Basque cheesecakes prepped for a March 4 pop-up at Vina Enoteca. Courtesy Charles Chen.
==I UPDATE: In an Instagram post March 8, Basuku Cheesecakes announced that its deal with a new partner in San Francisco had fallen through "in the 11th hour." "There's been lots of 'almost there' over the past couple years from various storefront leases to partnerships, with everything falling through," they wrote. "This process has been very frustrating and draining and at this point has put the future of Basuku is in question...it looks like Basuku will be going away for a little while." A sale in San Francisco will be announced on social media next week.==
Charles Chen began crafting Japanese-inspired Basque cheesecakes in his Oakland apartment at the height of the pandemic in spring 2020. In early June that year, he posted on Instagram that he had cheesecakes available for preorder at an Oakland shop or via direct message.
Chen, who had been working as a food industry consultant, sold out that first week, stopping after he made 52 cheesecakes when he’d only planned on 40. Weeks later, former San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Soleil Ho had tried the concoction: “The texture is phenomenal, reminiscent of when you leave a triple-creme soft cheese out on the kitchen counter and its fat wilts and softens, leaving you with something you can effortlessly scoop up and smear on a cracker with a spoon,” they wrote.
Chen’s dessert quickly gained a cult following, sparking other Bay Area bakers to make Basque cheesecakes themselves. By the summer of 2020, Chen had already outgrown his apartment and was plotting his next move.
At the time, Chen’s friend John Shelsta, the local baker behind Love For Butter, was selling his pastries and breads at pop-ups at Zola in Palo Alto and eyeing a move to Vina Enoteca. Shelsta introduced Chen to the owner, and after some discussion they both agreed to start selling their goods at the Welch Road Italian restaurant.
Over two years and an untold number of cheesecakes later, Saturday, March 4, will be the last day Chen will sell his viral desserts at Vina Enoteca. From noon to 2 p.m., in addition to Basuku’s preorder pickups, smaller slices of their new sakura flavor will be sold alongside original, black sesame, hojicha, cafe con leche and hibiscus flavors. Additionally, Vina’s chef John Madriaga will be serving pizza portafoglio (folded pizza) and Sicilian slices, and pastry chef Mimi Mendoza will be making matcha amaretti and genmai gelato sandwiches. Marin-based chocolatier Formosa will also be on hand selling their confections.
“The restaurant (in 2020) was empty, me and John (Shelsta) producing baked goods,” Chen says. “As the restaurant came back to capacity I'd remained there, but my space then became very limited (with) the full operation of the restaurant as a priority.”
Chen says he has spent the past couple of years commuting from Oakland to Palo Alto daily, all the while considering the business’ next steps. He’s now decided to scale up the business, teaming up with a partner in San Francisco and taking his operation there. Chen says he hopes to unveil his new business partner next week and restart sales the following week.
“From a business perspective, popping up is not a sustainable, permanent solution,” Chen says. “I’ve been searching for more of a sustainable solution for years…Prior to cheesecakes I was in the consulting business, (and) there’s a lot of those kind of opportunities coming back on projects I’d like to be involved with. I’m really trying to find a middle ground of scaling the business while addressing other personal business needs and needs for time.”
He adds that opening a brick-and-mortar shop was a “less desirable solution” given the current economic climate.
“To best mitigate some of those risks, in my mind it was better to partner up with an established group that isn’t going anywhere,” he says.
While Basuku’s cheesecakes will be easier to find in San Francisco as the business scales up, Chen says he has no immediate plans to continue selling them on the Peninsula.
“But by no means is the brand going to forget about the Peninsula,” he says. “It’s a good market, people have been very supportive and loyal over the years and that’s definitely not going to be forgotten. It’s just now there’s going to be a partnership, there's more moving parts to take into consideration than just the whim of the maker.”
“The Peninsula is close to my life and multiple projects have tied me to that area, so I have a feeling I'll be back and if there isn’t any permanent location, there will be periodic pop-ups on the Peninsula,” he adds.
Basuku Cheesecakes, Instagram: @basukucheesecakes. Pop-up at Vina Enoteca noon to 2 p.m. March 4, 700 Welch Road Suite 110, Palo Alto.