A line stretched down the 900 block of Township Line Road in Elkins Park on a recent Sunday morning. It’s an unusual sight in this historic-yet-sleepy suburb, with its scattered commercial hubs and winding residential streets.
But this line has been forming regularly — even in the rain — since May, when the Cheesecake Lady bakery reopened for the first time after the pandemic arrived.
Sarah Lennon of Philadelphia and Dana Houck of Elkins Park arrived first at 8:30 a.m., an hour and a half before the bakery opens. They played cards at a table on the patio while waiting in the 90-degree heat.
“I don’t even like cheesecake, but I like her cheesecake,” Lennon said.
Her is Vanessa Jackson, 55, who opened this store in 2018 after moving it from Jenkintown. She’s a Southwest Philadelphia native, a mother to three children and three stepchildren, and an excellent cook — the kind who hosts family dinners after church on Sunday. In her first career, Jackson was director of development for Bethel Deliverance International Church in Cheltenham and assistant director of development of the annual fund at Arcadia University, from which she has a business degree.
So while it’s no surprise Jackson is a successful entrepreneur, her path to becoming the Cheesecake Lady is almost as unlikely as a line out the door in Elkins Park.
She was in her 30s when she tasted cheesecake for the first time, at a Christmas lunch at the Macaroni Grill with her Bethel Deliverance coworkers. Nearly everyone on staff ordered cheesecake for dessert, but not Jackson.
Her colleagues questioned the choice, and she replied, “Oooh, cheese in a cake? That sounds reprehensible.” When they realized that she had never had cheesecake, they insisted she try it.
“And I fell in love,” Jackson recalls.
She started going to the Macaroni Grill after church every Sunday to get cheesecake for herself and her children. But after a time she thought: “Who has money to buy three kids and myself cheesecake?”
In 1999, she embarked on a cheesecake-baking odyssey. She made her first attempt while on the Atkins diet, using a recipe on the back of a box of Equal, the sugar substitute. “It was disgusting, to say the very least,” Jackson says.
She switched to real sugar post-Atkins and baked a cheesecake a week. To test its quality, she would bring some to her favorite aunt, Maritta Taylor, a sweets buff. Aunt Maritta’s initial assessments were mild, so Jackson kept trying.
“Every Sunday, I took her a cheesecake,” she remembers, “and every Sunday she ate it faithfully. And she wasn’t bowled over or anything, but she’d say, ‘Oh, it’s getting a little better.‘”
Determined to impress her aunt, Jackson researched and bought the best ingredients, including Philadelphia Cream Cheese. She tweaked previous recipes, made yet another cake, and dropped it off with her aunt.
“She didn’t eat it in front of me right away. I went back home and a little bit later, she called me on the phone, and she was like, ‘‘NESSAAAA! ‘NESSAAAA!’ The A’s were endless.
“This is exactly how she said it: ‘That. Cheese. Cake. Oh my gosh, can you do it again?‘”
Jackson hadn’t written down the recipe, but managed to recreate it. Aunt Maritta paid $25 for the cake.
A week later, a woman approached Jackson after church, asking to buy one. “I said, ‘I don’t sell cheesecake.' And she said, ‘That’s funny, your aunt says you sell cheesecake.‘”
Thus began Jackson’s side job as the Cheesecake Lady. She sold cheesecake after church for $3 a slice and filled special orders for whole cakes.
Brittany Jackson — Jackson’s oldest, who helps run the store now — remembers hopping in and out of the car to deliver cakes along the route from Bethel Deliverance to her grandmother’s house in West Philly. “We would have orders that entire drive,” she remembers.
In 2005, Jackson spotted miniature springform pans while wandering through Kohl’s — a discovery that led to her now-signature 4-inch cheesecakes. It proved to be an essential innovation: Not only could she sell them whole, sparing her the messy task of slicing, but she could bake several at once.
But it wasn’t until 2013 that she made moves to open a storefront. Her friend and Zumba instructor, Torri Grice, owned Kazoodles pet boutique in Jenkintown. Grice had a good relationship with other retailers and landlords in the area, and she started looking for a space for Jackson.
She found one on West Avenue, a busy strip filled with mom-and-pop shops and restaurants close to Route 611. Jackson opened up there in January 2014, and business took off seamlessly as her longtime customers combined with a loyal local following.
“It was pretty awesome to see the entire town of Jenkintown come out and support this new store that they’d never even heard of,” Brittany says. “To this day, we’re only maybe five minutes away and they’re like, ‘You’re our Cheesecake Lady.‘”
“She was very organized. Even if she was figuring things out through trial and error, you wouldn’t have known it,” Grice says of Jackson. “I gained a lot of weight while she was there,” she adds, laughing.
Though it was successful, Jackson closed the Jenkintown store in 2016; the space was small, the upkeep expensive.
She picked it back up in 2018, when Brittany expressed a stronger interest in running the business. Around the same time, a bakery owner in Elkins Park reached out asking if she’d be interested in taking over the lease and equipment at 910 Township Line Road.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, Brittany, it must be meant to be,‘” Jackson said. “All we had to do was change the paint from green to pink.”
“If you were to see it, you wouldn’t believe because how fast they go,” Brittany says. Since it reopened on a limited schedule, the bakery has been selling out within a few hours. Jackson’s landlord is searching for more kitchen space for them.
Many of the customers lining up are new, but that doesn’t stop the regulars from coming — and waiting.
On Sunday, Yvonne Hayes of Philadelphia also arrived around 8:30 a.m. She sat patiently in a rocking chair on the patio, listening to music. She’s been buying this cheesecake for 21 years, ever since Jackson sold it out of her trunk after church.
Hayes didn’t love waiting, but “I’m cool. I’m glad I’m not back there,” she said, gesturing down the street toward the line of customers standing in the morning sun.
Marcus Cromarcy was back there. He first tried Jackson’s cheesecakes last year, so he had no hesitation about waiting.
“Oh, it’s definitely worth it,” he said.
“The quality and the different things that she does with cheesecake, I haven’t seen too many other people do. Like with her... What is it? The caramel apple crunch?” Cromarcy asked, before answering himself: “Yeah, that’s jawn.”