It's not the most gastronomically appealing pairing of topics: eel and cheesecake.
But fortunately for Barry Kratchman, he has an expertise in both.
That has given his Classic Cake wholesale bakery, with 55 employees in North Philadelphia, its first export opportunity. Two weeks ago, 15,150 cheesecakes made at Classic's factory on Sedgley Avenue near Juniata Park set sail from the Port of New York on a container ship bound for South Korea.
"Koreans revere Philadelphia cheesecake," said Kratchman, president since acquiring the 30-year-old Classic Cake in 2006.
Philadelphia cheesecake with a few tweaks, that is. The recipe for the Classic Cake Korea brand is all-natural, less sweet, and will include such flavors as green tea, pumpkin, and Korean sweet potato.
"It's kind of a learning curve for me," said chef Robert Bennett, whose training is in classical French cuisine with a specialty in pastry. "This is a new experience."
In a sense for South Korea, too. Along with a population boom, the country of 50 million, doubled since 1960, has been undergoing a culinary evolution.
"The coffee culture in Korea exploded over the last few years, and with that came desserts," said Lin Hwang, vice president of J&R Seafood Inc., a Baltimore company that helped Kratchman land the cheesecake venture.
Hwang expects a ravenous reception for Classic Cake's cheesecakes in Korea, in part because of their Philadelphia link.
"The Philadelphia name is getting a name recognition in Korea," Hwang said. "It all started with the Philadelphia-branded cheesecake from Kraft."
That's why Philadelphia - which Koreans call Pill-Ah - will be incorporated into the brand name of Classic Cake's line there. Pill Chee Kay, short for "Philadelphia cheesecake," will be the name of cafes opening soon in Korean airports, malls, and places where Classic Cake's creations will be sold, Hwang said.
The shipment en route, all presold, will go to convenience and grocery stores, and to 42 elementary schools as a pilot lunch program, said Hwang, whose father and business partner, Rocky, was born in Korea.
Fresh fruit is the typical dessert in South Korea, Hwang said, but with per capita income dramatically increasing over the last 10 to 20 years, there is growing demand for more "high-quality foods."
South Korea's version of cheesecake is quite spongy, he said. The preference for something heavier among the under-50 age group has been fueled by cream cheese's growing popularity, Hwang said.
Which brings us to eel.
The dessert deal linking Philadelphia to Seoul started with Kratchman trying to sell eel to Sobo Holdings Inc., a food distributor in South Korea. Kratchman also owns the Delaware Valley Fish Co. in Norristown, which specializes in eel and oysters.
As the parties talked, cheesecake came up, Hwang said. In time, a deal was brokered after Sobo president Cho Sok Jae, who visited Classic Cake's factory on Feb. 28, was assured his requirements for food quality, ingredients, labeling, and - perhaps the most significant departure from American standards - portion size could be met.
The 7-inch cakes expected to arrive in South Korea April 30 are cut into 12 70-gram slices - not the 180-gram wedges of Classic's standard 9-inch steak house cheesecake.
Last week, Curtis Gregory, director of the Office of Business Services at the Philadelphia Commerce Department, heralded Classic Cake's move from Cherry Hill to the city seven years ago - an address change that helped the company hook Sobo.
"Their growth into the international market shows the competitive advantage of their products and their location," Gregory said.
At the World Trade Center of Greater Philadelphia, a nonprofit specializing in international-business support, exporting is promoted as a way to cushion company revenue against U.S. economic downturns. The best candidates, said Dino Ramos, senior vice president, are those with a niche product "that is not easily duplicated or is not currently being made by our competitors in the world."
More promising for Classic Cake, he said, is that with Congress' October 2011 approval of the long-stalled free-trade agreement with South Korea, that country is "a major player now in the world."
Kratchman is thrilled about the potential that presents for Classic Cake, including job growth:
"It's nice to see we can create an export market and give back to the Philadelphia community."
Barry Kratchman speaks about Classic Cake's move into the South Korean market at www.inquirer.com/businessEndText