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A lot has changed in the past few years since Joe Moruzzi started his UK-based cheesecake business. Moruzzi, 33, was a house painter who was working on big building sites in 2015 when his dad made a cheesecake at home that he thought he might be able to improve upon.
“His wasn’t great,” Moruzzi told TODAY Food. “But then, mine wasn’t great either. Both of us shouldn’t have carried on with it, really. But we did. Or I did, anyway.”
Moruzzi began experimenting with flavors and ingredients. “I love being creative with food, so I started practicing at home,” he said. “I thought that the cheesecake itself was slightly generic as a dessert, and a bit dated. I thought I’d revamp it, there were fancy sponge cakes but nothing so much with the cheesecakes, so I thought I’d overload it with all these things people loved, make it a little bit new and relevant. It’s sort of like a double dessert with everything on top.”
And like many budding bakers, he looked to the people around him for feedback. “It’s a bit of an odd thing to bring cake products to a building site,” he laughed. “Not that it’s frowned upon, but it wasn’t super cool for a builder to be doing baking stuff then. I think it’s become much more popular in the last five years. But I would bring these little pots for (the workers onsite) to try and luckily they loved it, so it spurred me on. If they hated it, I think I would’ve packed it in!”
The response was so enthusiastic, in fact, Moruzzi figured he might be able to make a little extra money by selling his cakes. “I love food, I’m a proper foodie. Going out to eat is something I do all the time, looking at other people on the internet and social media, drawing inspiration from all sorts of places. My dad’s half Italian so I was brought up around great food all the time. And that inspired me to experiment and be creative with ingredients that I thought people would like, like switching up salted caramel for salted butterscotch, or pairing lemon and basil. And I got to a point where I thought, people are gonna like it and maybe I could monetize it. But there was no intention of making it a business. A side hustle, maybe, make a bit of extra money. And then it completely changed overnight.”
It went viral overnight.
Moruzzi had no business plan when he started the Instagram account for Pleesecakes, his term for the unbaked cheesecakes he’d been making. (Why unbaked, you ask? “Well, because I had no baking experience,” he explained.)
“I had nothing in place. I designed the logo on Canva, an app on my mobile phone,” he said. “The link in bio said just to DM me. I didn’t even have an email, let alone a website or anything like that. And then it went viral overnight.”
Moruzzi launched the Instagram page on Jan. 3, 2017, and by Jan. 6, it was clear he was never going back to a construction site. “It was instantaneous. I think it was the fact that the cheesecakes were different, because no one was really doing these over-the-top, ‘extra’ cheesecakes, and the backstory that I was a painter played into it. We were thrown into the deep end and there was nothing to back it up. There were thousands of followers in the first week. And it was a lot for me at the time so I had to build a team around me.”
He found himself figuring things out on the fly because he had no other choice. “I kind of winged it for that first year. I brought my partner from the painting site to help me but it was the most hectic, chaotic time. We were in the kitchen 20 hours a day most days. It was very testing psychologically.”
There were, however, some notable highlights. They started doing TV appearances and getting even more popular in England. Then one busy Wednesday, they got a call from McVitie’s, a cookie (“biscuit”) company, asking them to make a cake for a VIP customer. “We said, ‘Yeah,’ thought nothing of it,” Moruzzi recalled. “And they called back when we were done for the day and said, ‘It’s the queen.’ And we’re like, ‘The customer is THE QUEEN?!’ So we went back in the kitchen after we’d closed everything up, made two cakes — one vanilla-based and one chocolate — and shipped them to her the next day. It was just kind of a blur. We were so busy, we just got it done and the next day we were up and at it again, doing something else. We didn’t have the time to think about anything. But it was good fun.”
Moruzzi now oversees a team of several dozen people at Pleesecakes — and they’ve graduated to oven usage. “We do do baked cheesecakes now, as I’ve gotten more confident,” he said. “And it gives the product itself a longer shelf life, so we’ve been able to launch into Amazon Fresh and Whole Foods.”
And baking cakes for Queen Elizabeth was far from the only memorable request they’ve gotten over the years. “We’ve done some odd savory cakes. We would do ones with, I suppose you’d call them chips, we call them crisps over here. We did one with Weetabix for a social media stunt with baked beans and bacon roses — essentially a wedding cake with a cheesecake filling and a baked bean core. I do want to experiment more with the savory side of things. I think that would be fun and it’s good for brand collaborations we’d love to do more of.”
Bean cakes aside, Moruzzi credits his aesthetic to his background as a house painter. “I think I had an eye for what looked good and what didn’t during my painting days, and that transferred to the cake decorating. I always wanted to make it as good as I could, giving an experience to the customer rather than just making money.”
Asked what his best holiday decorating tip would be for home bakers, he said, “I think anything with a bit of edible gold. We’re very big on gold and edible glitter, especially for the festive period. We rolled all our Christmas truffles in it because it makes them look like little antique baubles.”
Who would’ve guessed that a popular Instagram account and some truly fantastical cakes would turn this house painter into Mr. Edible Glitter? “Baking is trendy now. We’ve got ‘The Great British Bakeoff’ and it’s become a popular hobby amongst all genders. It’s not that it wasn’t accepted when I started, but it wasn’t a common thing for a builder to make pretty little cakes. I’d be bringing them in to the site in ramekins, decorated all lovely to make it a beautiful experience.”
Moruzzi credits his support network of coworkers, friends and family as playing a major part in his success. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
It's been an incredible journey.
And he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. Moruzzi foresees another couple of years of hard work and growth, telling TODAY the day-to-day operations are still very intense at Pleesecake headquarters. “I’m a bit of a perfectionist, I always try and look for the next thing. Our focus now is innovation, making really good products with quality ingredients and just working on those flavor combinations and branding opportunities.”
For American customers dying to get their hands on a Pleesecake, good news: There’s a new edition of his cookbook available on Amazon. “That was another experience,” he said. “We got approached three months in — and again, no experience in writing books or testing recipes, and we had to write 60 recipes and test them within eight weeks.”
The breakneck pace of the life of a baker and social media innovator seems to suit him just fine, however. Moruzzi has big plans for expansion into the U.S. and beyond. This January will mark five years since he traded in his paint brushes for cake pans.
“I’m excited for the future,” he said. “It’s been an incredible journey.”
Emily Gerard is a writer at the TODAY show, by way of ABC’s Nightline and Vanity Fair magazine. She lives in Brooklyn where she entertains frequently. Her favorite dinner guests are dogs and you can find bountiful proof on her Instagram.
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