116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Before the coronavirus pandemic, Dawn Murray didn't plan to become known full time as the Cheesecake Lady.
She's been making and selling cheesecakes for years, to be sure, and had picked up the nickname as someone who would often donate cheesecakes to school fundraisers and sell them to friends and neighbors. But then the pandemic hit, and in mid-April she was furloughed. Suddenly, her hobby took on new relevance.
'My unemployment check was really late, and I didn't even know if it was coming. I thought, I have to do something, because I have bills, I have my kids,” she said.
A friend recommended she create a Facebook page, and she did, under the name The Cheesecake Lady. Orders trickled slowly in. Then on May 8, her hairdresser bought a cheesecake and posted a photo of it on a few local carryout food Facebook groups that had popped up to support local businesses.
'All of a sudden my phone started blowing up, and I'm getting all these orders for cheesecake,” Murray said.
So many that she has a waiting list, and had to set limits so she wasn't spending 24 hours a day baking. In May, she estimates she made 130 to 150 cheesecakes.
In addition to full cakes, which she's booking out one to two weeks in advance, she sells cheesecakes slices one to two times a week from her house. People should watch her Facebook page, facebook.com/outofthebluecheesecakeco, for updates on when those are available. The best way to order a cake is to email her at email@example.com or send her a message on Facebook.
Murray first started making cheesecakes around 21 years ago, when her then-husband asked her, 'Out of the blue” to make a cheesecake. That's where she got the name for her business, Out of the Blue Cheesecake Co.
Her first attempt did not go well.
'It was not good at all. I said, ‘That's disgusting, I'm throwing it out, don't eat it,'” she said. 'After that, I don't know if I became obsessed, but I did want to know how to make a cheesecake.”
She spent the next six years trying different recipes and techniques, trying to create the perfect cheesecake.
'I took things from all those different techniques and put them in my own method to see if it would work,” she said. 'I didn't really like cheesecakes before, and I knew I had found my method when I liked it.”
She started making them to sell occasionally on the side when her oldest daughter was in high school, then more seriously when her daughter had graduated high school and wanted to spend a year tutoring in Israel. Murray ramped up sales to raise money for her daughter's travels. That's when she also started donating them to school auctions and got the name the Cheesecake Lady. Then, when she got divorced and started working full time five years ago, the cheesecakes trailed off. Until now. She said she enjoyed her job as an administrative assistant and doesn't know if she'll be called back to work, but she feels she's doing what she was meant to do.
'Honestly, I would love to just bake cheesecakes for people,” she said. 'I love to feed people; that's my love language. My kids would warn their friends before they came over, ‘My mom's going to try to feed you.'”
She said one of the most rewarding parts of this new business has been hearing the stories behind why people are ordering the cheesecakes - the special occasions they're marking. When people come to pick their orders up - they either stop by her house or she delivers them - she enjoys meeting them.
'I have made so many deep connections through doing this. That's where my heart is. I love that people open up to me, and I get to talk to them. I get to help people in different ways just by feeding them cheesecake.”
She recently made a special order cheesecake for a woman whose grandfather died from coronavirus. Another woman wanted a special vanilla cheesecake to share with her father in a care center. They couldn't eat it together, but shared it on opposite sides of a window.
Murray said the response from the community has been moving. In a time when many people are struggling, she's had near strangers help her. Out of the blue.
She said she posted on Facebook that she had so many orders she needed to purchase an additional refrigerator. The next day one of her customers brought her one, for free. That happened a second time, when she posted that she was hoping to get to the Habitat ReStore for a third refrigerator when she saw they had one for sale. Another couple sent her a message and told her they had bought it for her. Another customer built her a stand for the mixer she bought for the business.
'I'm going to cry,” she said. 'It's so overwhelming, the response I've had from people ... It's only through the cheesecake. I guess I just don't understand how I'm touching their lives that they would want to do something like that. It really touches me, deeply.”
Cheesecakes, she said, remind her of her great-grandfather, who owned a bakery in New York.
'I was very close to him, though he died when I was 4. My great grandparents had a deep effect on me. I remember the smell of the sweetness in the air.”
Cheesecakes start at $50 a cake, which she said reflects her time and the quality of ingredients. She makes combinations of toppings and fillings like white chocolate raspberry, that uses an entire pint of raspberries in a homemade sauce. Her turtle cheesecakes has caramel and chocolate on top and pecans inside.
Her son suggested a snickerdoodle cake, and another daughter loves red velvet, which led her to create a red velvet cheesecake. Her children are ages 13, 15, 24 and 30.
'My kids are my inspiration. My triple chocolate is from one of my daughters,” she said. 'On her third birthday she told me next year that's what she wanted. I had a whole year to figure it out, and I did. It's very rich and very decadent.”
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