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Success, they hope, will be sweet

Owners of a cheesecake bakery think their secret recipe and hard work will pay off, and that Spring Hill is ready for some dessert.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


SPRING HILL -- Jerry DeCristofaro started to realize his cheesecaking talents after he baked one for his then first-grader's Thanksgiving party.

The next day, the teacher casually sent a note home with all the students inquiring who was the responsible baker.

Three years and hundreds of cheesecakes later, DeCristofaro and his wife, Kathy, have opened a bright, cheesecakey yellow-painted business on Deltona Boulevard that smells thick with creamy sweetness in the evening, during baking hours. It's called Aunt Josie's Cheesecakes, named for DeCristofaro's aunt.

"We really don't know anything about this business. But we know cheesecakes," said DeCristofaro, 42, a former truck driver from New Jersey.

Over the years, the DeCristofaros have worked over Aunt Josie's recipe here and there, garnering fame throughout the Hernando County School District by sending the cheesecakes with each of their five children, who attend four different schools.

Now, the new business owners beam with optimism, a honeymoon period they hope will last.

However, running a successful dessert shop in Hernando County, is, well, no piece of cake, say former and current pastry shop owners. Over the past decade, at least five pastry shops, including a cheesecake store, have closed in Brooksville and Spring Hill. Two survived less than two years.

One of the oldest independent dessert shops in the county is Sylvie's French Pastries-Bakery in Hernando Beach. It has served up French goodies such as cream puffs and eclairs for nearly eight years. However, Sylvie's has also struggled, and closes each July. The summer months do not bring many of its core East Coast and European customers.

"It's not easy. Not everyone understands and appreciates French pastries," said Sylvie Kalfayan, who owns the shop at 4004 Shoal Line Blvd.

More likely, sweet shops in the area struggle because many potential customers cannot eat dessert, said Barton Weitz, a business professor at the University of Florida. Retirees often have dietary restrictions, and they also do not partake in the dessert entertainment culture. Younger families are more likely to buy birthday cakes or other sweets to celebrate special events.

"Elderly people don't eat desserts as much as young people," Weitz said.

Also, dessert shops rely more on a solid and broad client base, because most sales of single portions or slices garner only a few dollars.

"It takes a lot of people coming through your store to build up sales," Weitz said.

Nowadays, dessert shops also compete with grocery stores and retail food outlets such as Sam's Club, which offers frozen, ready-made, restaurant-quality cakes and pies, he said.

Indeed, owners of the Spring Hill Italian pastry shop Argento Pastry Shop II say their main competition is Publix.

Debbie Argento said she initially thought New York transplants would crowd her shop, at 10521 Spring Hill Drive, which carries many of the same types of cannoli and biscotti sold at its Brooklyn predecessor. Yet, its two-year existence in Spring Hill has been difficult and slow, except during the holidays.

"Maybe pastries aren't a necessity here," said Argento, who also owns with her husband, Sal, another Argento's in Port Richey, where all the sweets are baked.

The DeCristofaros say their cheesecake shop will fare better than the last one to grace Spring Hill, New York Cheesecake Co., which relied on New York and New Jersey wholesalers to bake and ship cheesecakes to Florida.

"We make everything here," said DeCristofaro, who moved his family to Florida 10 years ago, when a back injury forced him to retire from truck driving.

And the DeCristofaros count on good karma from the store's namesake. Jerry DeCristofaro's Aunt Josie successfully baked and sold cheesecakes out of her house in Delaware for restaurants throughout the 1980s. When DeCristofaro got the recipe, he started making cheesecakes for family and friends on special occasions. The cheesecakes rarely survive one sitting.

After much cajoling and a Christmas season busied with baking some 300 cakes, DeCristofaro and his wife finally gave in and started working on a business plan.

With the help of a loan from a friend and credit cards, they spent the summer renovating their store at 4066 Deltona Blvd. They started baking last week.

They even have a secret ingredient, which they declined to reveal, but say it isn't found in any other cheesecake recipe they've seen.

Aunt Josie's Cheesecakes offers more than a dozen flavors and is officially open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

They bake at night, however, since cheesecake has to sit a few hours and gel before it is ready to serve.

"As long as the light's on, and we're baking, we're open," DeCristofaro said.

-- Jennifer Liberto covers business and development in Hernando County and can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to liberto@sptimes.com.

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