How Cheesecake Saved a Family's Future

Patrick Peteet's eyes light up when he starts talking about cheesecake. Mainly because that topic leads to conversations about his ambitions for his family's business, Peteet's Famous Cheese Cakes.
 
"My vision is to grow this into a big franchise, like Subway or McDonalds," Patrick Peteet says. "We have a product the world needs to know about. I don't want to just stay here and grow old. I want to have multiple locations everywhere."
 
The Oak Park-based business has 90 different flavors of cheesecake, including its No. 1 seller, Sweet Potato Cheesecake. Peteet's Famous Cheese Cakes likes to label itself as the "home of the two-layer cheesecake," which means it has a normal cheesecake and a second layer baked on top of it. It offers gluten-free and kosher options. The business prides itself on using fresh, local ingredients and a growing reputation for deliciousness. It has a 5-star rating on Yelp! with 33 reviews.
 
"It's the creamiest cheesecake you are gonna taste, but I'll let the public do the talking," Patrick Peteet says.
 
The family currently operates Peteet's Famous Cheese Cakes out of storefront on 9 Mile Road in Oak Park, selling 60-80 cheesecakes per day. Its cheesecakes can be found in some of Metro Detroit's marquee locations, like The Henry Ford and Fox Theatre. With plans to open a second location in Oakland County this year, the sky is the limit for cheesecake production for the Peteet family.
 
"A lot of people say, 'You're not famous,'" Patrick Peteet says, explaining why famous is in the business name. "When they taste the cheesecake I say, 'We are now.' You gotta think famous to be famous."
 
Family Business
 
Patrick Peteet and his family never aspired to get into the cheesecake business. Patrick Peteet's father, Chauncey Peteet, worked on the line at Ford until he couldn’t stand it anymore, quit, and went into real-estate. The patriarch of the family started his own real-estate business, Peteet Realty, not long after.
 
"He had bigger dreams," Patrick Peteet says. "When you're working for someone you can only make so much. When you're working for yourself you can make nothing and its your fault or the world can be yours. It's up to you."
 
That was 1985. Patrick Peteet was in high school when Chauncey Peteet and his wife, Marcia Peteet, started growing the business slowly with their family. First they focused on residential real-estate and then grew into a bigger operation that deals with everything from investing in houses to property management. Patrick and his older brother grew up in the family business and became part of it.
 
Things changed quickly in 1997 when Chauncey Peteet died unexpectedly. Marcia Peteet was devastated with the sudden loss of her husband and the void his death left in the family and its business. Patrick Peteet stepped into the breach, rallied his family and took over the business.
 
"I was the one who had to tell my mother that my father had passed," Patrick Peteet says. "I still remember that day. He was late and we knew something wasn’t right. The police came and I had to tell her. Two or three days later people were coming in looking for their checks. My mother was crying. I am not a cruel person, but I had to tell her, 'I know that was my father, your husband, but at the end of the day this business needs to run and they want their checks.' That made me grow up."
 
Cheesecake to the Rescue

Patrick doesn't like telling that story. He does because it's part of his narrative and therefore part of the story of his family’s business. He can’t change it so he uses it to help strengthen himself and his family. Patrick is a firm believer in the saying that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and his father’s death has become the embodiment of that.
 
When Patrick Peteet's father died he had his real-estate broker's license and had spent nearly a decade in the family business. He took the reigns and grew the office from 12 agents to 20 agents. His family was doing well, their business was growing and they were riding the real-estate wave of the 2000s, investing in real-estate and getting ahead.
 
"I had lines of credit on my house to do the flipping, and everything was going beautiful until the bottom fell out," Peteet says. "Then I was like, 'What happened here?'"
 
The housing bubble burst in late 2000s and the recession ate the family business whole. They had to let the real-estate agents go. Then they lost their investment real-estate. Then they lost their own houses, and cars. Patrick Peteet lost everything and moved into a rental house with his family. That was the time that all he had was him family (he has two young children) and his hobby of baking. Patrick Peteet didn’t see it right away, but that passion for baking would become his next opportunity.
 
"I started baking cheesecakes on the side just to get gas money, to put some food money on the table for my kids," Patrick Peteet says. "My brother (Chauncey Peteet Jr.) and I were selling 30 cheesecakes a weekend. I said, 'You know what, it’s time to close down the real-estate company.' We needed to change with the market or we were going to die."

That was 2010. Houses in Detroit are making headlines for selling for a few hundred dollars and the Peteet's were burned out on real-estate. So the family pooled its money and decided to make a go of the cheesecake business. The family was inspired by Patrick’s leadership and rallied behind it.
 
Patrick wasted no time and started learning everything he could about this new professional direction. He studied franchise retail locations and took notes about what made them tick. He spied on bakers to see what equipment they used so he knew what to order for his family business.
 
"I was pretty much a stalker at Costco and Sam's Club," Peteet says. "I would be looking at them baking and they were probably saying, 'Why is that weird guy looking at us all the way in the back of the bakery?' I was trying to see what they doing."

Labor Day three years ago, Peteet's Famous Cheese Cakes opened its first retail location in the old space that was the original home of Stage Deli. Peteet, who graduated from Oak Park High School, remembers eating there as a kid and wants to recreate that experience for his community but with his family’s good name. Business was slow at first but sales have grown significantly, leading the Peteet family to look for a second location.
 
"Everyday gets better and better," Patrick Peteet says.

- Jon Zemke is the News Editor for Metromode and its sister publications, Model D and Concentrate. He is also the Managing Editor of SEMichiganStartup.com. He has never really liked cheesecake but instantly fell in love with the cheesecakes from Peteet's Famous Cheese Cakes. Its glutten-free cheesecakes are the best glutten-free food he has ever eaten.
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