Eli’s cheesecakes are enjoyed by presidents and children alike, and Schulman’s hospitality is felt by customers across the country. From a local favorite to becoming one of the country’s most popular desserts, Eli’s has come a long way under Schulman’s leadership.
“We didn’t get here because we had one idea, or we had a great cheesecake, or we sold a lot. We got here because we had people to rely upon.”
Growing up, Schulman watched his father work hard in the kitchen of their family restaurant on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and learned at a very young age that success is not a one-person achievement.
“The great thing about a restaurant is that every person on the team, from the busboy to the dishwasher, plays a significant role,” Schulman says. His leadership is inspired by his father—a great host, who focused on his associates, customers, products and innovation.
Leading a business is no piece of cake
Eli’s has weathered economic downturns, changing food trends (like gluten-free and low-sugar diets), and other defining moments by finding strength in its people and being flexible.
“When there was less work, they adjusted, and when there was more work, they adjusted. We’ve been through so many cycles. Things are tough, but you’ve gotten through it before, and you try to use your collective knowledge to adjust and change and develop new products, new customers or new markets,” Schulman explained.
In difficult times, Schulman thinks about his father, who would come into the restaurant every night. Schulman remembers him as always being upbeat and positive—not in a disingenuous, “everything is great” kind of way, but in trusting things will work out, “because if you don’t believe it, no one else will.” Following his father’s footsteps, Schulman brings great energy into Eli’s, walking the floors of the bakery several times a day and recognizing individuals for their achievements, big and small.
Making an impact
Fostering a learning environment and the vision of a charitable company committed to quality and service, Schulman finds ways to engage his employees and channel their leadership potential. For the holidays, Schulman organizes a companywide initiative called “The Giving Tree,” encouraging his team to carry cheesecakes and desserts to an organization of their choice, with the key being that the individual personally makes the delivery: “We can make a difference not just in the number of zeros that are on the check, but with our service, our ideas, or even a cheesecake donation.”
Schulman is known for his philanthropic work with Chicago Public Schools, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, RefugeeOne, and other community organizations. From organizing a cleanup of the Eli Schulman playground on Chicago Ave. to giving scholarships to students at the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences, from making a 1,000-pound cake for the 100th birthday of the National Restaurant Association to hiring refugees and immigrants, Schulman’s philanthropy takes many forms in community engagement. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you get to do things that are really important to you and give back to the community … (and) it makes work much more interesting and rewarding.”
To Schulman, this comes naturally, thanks to the seed of service planted by his father in Eli’s early days. “We follow the seeds of service over and over again and it becomes second nature,” Schulman said, on the importance of being authentic in defining and expressing higher purpose.
The recipe for success of this family-owned business is simple: a responsiveness to change, active involvement in the community and a commitment to employee development. United in purpose, with a strong work ethic and a love for cheesecake, Eli’s, under Schulman’s leadership, is all hands on deck and all hearts in service.
Number of employees::
Number of years in role::
Most admired leaders::
My dad, and our Founder, Eli M. Schulman, and John H. Johnson, the Founder of Ebony Magazine and Johnson Publishing
Things you can't live without::
o Four Daily Newspapers and digital clipping with One Note and Evernote o Texting with my daughters and wife, and family dinners o Being with our people at Eli’s Cheesecake and telling our story o MSNBC o Tennis during the summer and dining out (preferably ones that serve Eli’s Cheesecake)