Anthony Favazza knew that his assumption of such an outstanding institution as Hank’s Cheesecake (1063 Big Bend Boulevard, Richmond Heights, 314-781-0300) In the midst of a pandemic it will have its challenges. However, even his lifelong work in the food business did not prepare him to deal with the most existential threat to the cheesecake operation: the global shortage of cream cheese.
“The entire supply chain disaster was a challenge for everyone, but it was a challenge for the fans here at Hank,” Vavazza says. “A piece of our secret sauce is that we source the best ingredients on the planet. All our chocolates are imported from Belgium, so it takes a lot of things to work right for everything to get here. I joked that I was going to start a reality show called Hunters Cream cheese.” Getting the ingredients to make Hank has been very difficult because it is a global supply game.”
Favazza can’t help but be shocked by the irony of his predicament. After all, Hank wouldn’t exist without the abundance of cream cheese found by founder Hank Krussell and his mother when he was a young child.
According to Favazza, who snatched the story from the alienated Krussel, the seed of the idea for who would become Hank began with Krussel’s father, a union pipe worker who was one of the only people in town with the experience to work on equipment at the then-local cream cheese factory Raskas. Because of his expert knowledge, the elder Krussell often receives emergency phone calls in the middle of the night asking for his help when the Raskas’ cooling systems fail.
As a token of their appreciation, Raskas VIPs send him home with a big box of cream cheese. He began to bring them home so regularly that Crossel’s mother had to be creative.
“They had their ears stick out of the cream cheese and they didn’t know what to do with it,” says Favazza. “They’re starting to play with it; Hank has all these stories of all the things they’ve tried to make out of it—jelly salad and all that.”
Cheesecakes were the most obvious choice, and Krussell and his mother managed to eat them so well—so good that Krussell continued to make sumptuous desserts for pleasure throughout his college and military career. Originally, he thought he would only bake as a hobby and as a way to share his passion with friends and family. However, as soon as he was discharged from the army, he decided to turn his love of cheese into a business.
“I don’t think this was something he thought he would do in his career, but people liked cheesecakes so much, it just happened,” says Vavazza. “It’s funny how the thing you’re supposed to do ends up finding you.”
Krussell launched Hank’s Restaurant from his apartment kitchen in 1983, where he baked his signature cakes and drove them to restaurants and bakeries, hoping the companies would help move his wares. Favazza recalls a story from one of Hank’s first clients, Marjorie Amigetti of the famous Amigetti sandwich shop in the Hill neighborhood.
“Mrs. Amegity has a very vivid memory of Hank walking into the bakery and saying, ‘I have this new cheesecake business, and I want you to buy cheesecakes,’” says Favazza. “At the time, her husband was a very popular baker and also made great desserts. He used to make cheesecakes from scratch, but when Mrs. Amegity tried Hank’s candy, she told him they wouldn’t make them anymore. They would buy him.”
Krussel’s business started by word of mouth and eventually gained so much fame that he outgrew his home kitchen setup and moved to a small storefront on Big Bend Boulevard in 1987. This also became so popular that he moved down the road four years later, to expand the offerings of its retail offering and solidifying its reputation as the greatest cheesecake show in town. When asked about the reason for his success, Crossel always referred to quality; Unlike other cheesecakes in town, which are thought to be overcooked, it’s thin and light. Add to that the artistic and creative flavors that long predate the Cheesecake Factory in St. Louis, and Hank’s is undoubtedly one of St. Louis’ most popular brands.
It’s this reputation that made capturing Hank a no-brainer for Favazza. A seasoned veteran of the restaurant thanks to his family’s restaurant on the hill, Favazza took the opportunity to take charge of Hank when Krussell was ready to retire. Crosell saw this as the ideal situation, too. After seeing how Favazza handled the move when he bought Amighetti in 2016, Krussel knew his company would be in the hands of a committed host.
Favazza has been just that. Although he understands the tension longtime customers may feel when selling their favorite brand, Favaza has kept business as usual. It’s also helpful to have Krussel by his side throughout the process, stopping in several times a week to check in at work and greet his old guests. The transition has been so smooth that regular employees often greet him with “thanks” for making sure their beloved organization continues.
“It’s a huge privilege and a huge responsibility, and I don’t take it lightly,” Vavazza says. “I’ve had a number of people thanking me for keeping me on the right track.”
Favazza understood why people were so grateful for him for keeping Hank as thriving as ever. Since taking over the business in October last year, he’s already gotten to know the multiple generations who see Hank as an integral part of their family traditions. The one thing that surprised him was the number of weddings the bakery does—something he feels he can only manage with the help of his team of bakers, including Ken Desmet and Rich Pfeiffer, who worked as a baker at Strobe for many years. Favazza credits them with keeping things consistent and making sure Hank remains a source of happiness for his loyal guests – a responsibility that invigorates everything he does in the bakery.
“Hank really advised me to get out of the wedding business because it’s too much pressure on operations and not a big part of the revenue,” says Favazza. “However, even in the first few weeks I was here, I was meeting all these clients and they told me that they ate Hank’s first cheesecake at their cousin’s wedding or even their own wedding. A large percentage of our clients were introduced to us at weddings. You can’t decide What it is worth to be the mother of the bride bragging to everyone at the wedding that they are serving cheesecake to Hank.”
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