Puyallup entrepreneur transforms unemployment into sweet cheesecake success

By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC

PUYALLUP, Wash. – When Danelle Hillman found herself unemployed with a young daughter to support and another mortgage payment due, she cried for a week, then put her faith in God and a 20-year-old cheesecake recipe.

That was three years ago. Today she is the owner of Tacoma Cheesecake, a frozen, chocolate-dipped, cheesecake-on-a-stick dessert that is sold in more than 500 grocery stores across the Pacific Northwest. In early 2018, she’ll be picking up an additional 500 stores in California, a huge step toward her goal of selling Tacoma Cheesecake across the country and maybe around the world.

Rewarding smiles

“I love walking into a store and seeing Tacoma Cheesecake on the shelf,” she said. “I love seeing the smile on people’s faces when they taste it.”

In her commercial kitchen in Puyallup, she has seven employees mixing, baking, cooling, cutting, dipping and freezing more than 8,000 cheesecake bars every week. In January, production will bump up to 16,000 bars a week.

Sales not the most important

Still, Hillman said, she learned the hard way that sales volume is only one number on a profit and loss statement, and not the most important one.

Hillman first came up with her cheesecake recipe in the early 1990s when she was an officer with the Tacoma Police Department, and she baked to relax. She left law enforcement to open a dessert shop in Dupont in 2003, and her cheesecake was one of her best sellers. Unfortunately, her business skills did not match her baking skills, and in 2007 she had to declare bankruptcy. She was also facing a difficult divorce.

Danelle Hillman, owner of Tacoma Cheesecake, with her daughter Kayla (left)
Danelle Hillman, owner of Tacoma Cheesecake, with her daughter Kayla (left)

“I lost everything but my daughter,” she said. Kayla was born in 2002, and she was the reason Hillman left law enforcement the first time — to have more time with her. When her business closed, Hillman went back to law enforcement, but she was always looking for a more family friendly occupation for a single mom. Years went by and finally Hillman decided she’d never find something else while she was working full-time (with a two-hour commute) so she quit.

“God put me on earth to be a mom,” Hillman said, so she trusted that God would help her figure out what to do next. She cried for a week, she said, but then she heard God say “Hello? You make cheesecake!”

Doing it differently to succeed

One of the first things she did was call John Rodenberg, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC). “I had failed my first business, and I knew if I didn’t do things differently I was not going to make it,” she said.

The Washington SBDC is a network of more than two dozen business advisors and two trade specialists who work with small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. SBDC advising is provided at no cost to the business owner and is completely confidential and tailored to the needs of each client.

The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives 50 percent of funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration and the rest from state and local funding partners, including colleges and universities, economic development councils, Ports, Chambers of Commerce and city and county governments.

Bankruptcy vs. $1 million in the bank

Hillman said she first met Rodenberg when she owned the dessert shop. When it closed, she had told him she’d never open another business unless she had a million dollars in the bank.

“So, does this mean you have a million dollars in the bank?” Rodenberg asked, deadpan. Not even close. In fact, because of the bankruptcy in 2007, financing would be even more difficult.

Hillman’s early business plan was to sell desserts, especially cheesecake, to restaurants, as she had done before, but this time restaurants weren’t buying. Instead, she started selling at the Puyallup Farmer’s Market in July 2015 and at various community festivals and events.

From plates to sticks

Cheesecake bars dipped by hand in chocolate
Cheesecake bars dipped by hand in chocolate

People loved her cheesecake, but she knew she was losing customers who didn’t want to walk around carrying a piece of cheesecake on a plate and fumbling with a plastic fork. She rolled out cheesecake-on-a-stick and it took off. Then came the idea to package her product and sell to grocery stores.

In the fall of 2016 she moved into her own 1,700-square-foot commercial kitchen and rebranded her company as Tacoma Cheesecake, selling Classic, Double Chocolate and Peanut Butter Bliss. She also has a rotating selection of seasonal favorites, including Key Lime Pie, Raspberry and Cookies and Cream.

Hillman said her basic recipes have changed very little, but her business is constantly evolving, and Rodenberg has been a big part of that growth. For one thing, she no longer spends her time making cheesecake. Her employees work in the kitchen so that she can work on the business.

For another thing, she has learned to track her revenue and expenses much more closely. “John was able to show me where I was losing most of my money and what I had to do to make my business work,” she said.

Numbers count, too

“Danelle has the baking talent, the marketing ability and the drive to succeed,” Rodenberg said, but what she needed, and got from the SBDC, was a standard approach to cost analysis and sales versus costs so that she could determine her breakeven.

“If it weren’t for John I probably wouldn’t still be in business,” she said. “John is really a numbers guy and he’s helped me get better at it, too.

“It’s all in the numbers,” she said. “You have to trust the numbers.”