So you wanna be a cheesecake baker?


Sally Zhu

Charlie Major, owner of Bay Area cheesecake store Charlie’s Cheesecake Works, poses with a classic cheesecake. Major, who started the store 20 years ago, still runs the shop to this day, selling three varieties of cheesecakes in 40 unique flavors.

by Lavanya Subramanian, TALON Student Life Editor

After Bay Area local Charlie Major retired 20 years ago, he didn’t take a conventional route of retiring. Instead, he started a new cheesecake business, setting up Charlie’s Cheesecake Works right here in San Jose, where he still owns and operates the store to this day. 

Major spent most of his working career in an industry that could not be more different from baking: manufacturing. Coincidentally, it was in one of the machine shops he worked at that he met a friend who sparked his interest in cheesecakes. 

“We always [said that] when we retired, we would get together and go make cheesecake for fun,” Major said. “I retired in 2002 [and] went looking for a business. The gentleman that was trying to sell the business said [he had] a cheesecake shop [to sell].”

The cheesecake store for sale came with all of the previous baker’s equipment, so all Major had to do was remodel the store into his very own Charlie’s Cheesecake Works, setting up shop and the baked goods. In fact, his background in manufacturing gave him the tools he needed to make his retirement dream come to life.

“I’m a manufacturing guy by training. I grew up in a machine shop, and I’ve always built stuff,” Major said. “I [thought], ‘I can do this. It’s pretty easy, and it’s a good retirement job for the next five or six years.’”

That was almost twenty years ago, and Major hasn’t looked back since. Although he loves the baking industry, he initially took on the business with little to no experience and dove into the deep end. Coming from a standard nine-to-five job, he realized that baking took more time and dedication than he originally thought.

“Baking is a timed event, so there is no downtime in baking,” Major said. “Once you start baking for the day, you’re busy until you’re done. It’s not like a job. It’s hard to find time to even use the restroom sometimes because everything is timed. There’s timers going off all the time, [but] you can’t just let it go. You have to deal with it.”

As the owner of Charlie’s Cheesecake Works, Major participates in and oversees all parts of making the cheesecake from start to finish: prepping the all-natural ingredients, baking the multiple sizes and flavors of cheesecakes, and finally serving them to customers, aiming to bring top-notch customer service and hospitality. 

To keep himself and the team on track and organized, Major has a daily timetable that lists out tasks and schedules, planning out times the day before. The process for making the cheesecakes involves making the batter, flavoring and distributing the batter, baking, topping, freezing, then cutting and placing them in boxes to sell. 

His store provides a variety of flavors and options for the customers, offering not only do they offer 40 unique flavors — seven standard and 33 special that are rotated year-round such as Bailey’s chocolate and cherries jubilee — they also have three different sizes of cheesecakes on the menu, including mini individual cheesecake “poppers.” The upper school has even sourced desserts from Major’s bakery, ordering dozens of these multi-flavored poppers for art exhibit receptions. 

“It’s like making a cake: you make the plain cake batter, then you can add chocolate or strawberries or raspberries,” he said. “In the first couple years, we made what people asked for, and seven [flavors] popped up recurringly. They were the ones that people were always asking for, so those are standard seven cakes.”

Major aims to establish relations with his customers and create a welcoming environment in his store. His walls, decorated with racecar photos and movie posters add a personal, memorable touch. Major makes efforts to help his customers as much as he can, including the time when he baked a customized pineapple cheesecake despite that flavor not being on the menu. 

I have met so many amazing people here. I got a phone call from a woman that said, ‘I want you to know, everyone in my family loves this cheesecake. They said it’s the best they’ve ever had, so they told me I have to go back to you again. I just wanted to call and say thank you.’ I think about that, and I think, ‘how many people do that?’

— Charlie Major, Owner of Charlie's Cheesecake Works

Another customer service tradition Major incorporates into his business to further encourage interaction is his taste-testing option called “try it before you buy it.” When new customers enter the store and wish to purchase a cheesecake, he allows them to taste-test a small bite first before buying. In addition, specifically when kids enter his store and want to try a flavor, he approaches them with a simple riddle or math problem first and then rewards them with the sweets. While it may seem like a simple tradition on the surface, Major hopes to make a larger impact on his customers by enforcing the idea of working for something before achieving it.

“I grew up in a family [where] if you wanted something, you earned it. There were no free lunches,” Major said. “One of the things I do here is [when] I let people sample our cheesecake, I have math games and problems for kids [to solve,]  which I thought was just a way to get the kids to understand how to earn something.”

Ultimately, his favorite part of being in the cheesecake business is meeting new and old customers every day. He credits some of his best memories to customers that have returned to his store and shown their appreciation for his cheesecakes.

“The thing about this business I didn’t expect was the customer side of it,” Major said. “I have met so many amazing people here. I got a phone call from a woman that said, ‘I want you to know, everyone in my family loves this cheesecake. They said it’s the best they’ve ever had, so they told me I have to go back to you again. I just wanted to call and say thank you.’ I think about that, and I think, ‘how many people do that?’”