Avella native turns to crowdsourcing site for business expansion

Avella native turns to crowdsourcing site for his growing cheesecake business

November 17, 2013
Margaret Ortitay and her grandson, Jason Ortitay, owner of Jason’s Cheesecake Co., pause in front of the former gas station owned by his late grandfather, John Ortitay, on Cross Creek Road near Avella. Jason hopes to convert the vacant building into a commercial bakery for his growing business. - Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Order a Print

Jason Ortitay is having success shrinking the traditional cheesecake into a 2-inch-diameter “Teasecake,” a miniature version that offers people an opportunity to indulge in a somewhat less guilty pleasure.

The small-is-beautiful dessert idea, which is taking root at area school and church fundraisers, as well as weddings, is creating a need for more baking space for Jason’s Cheesecake Co.

Ortitay, 29, an Avella native who lives in Bridgeville, is seeking financial assistance from Kickstarter, a Web-based company that is the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects. Kickstarter is one of several sites specializing in “crowdsourcing,” or raising funds online.

Currently, Jason’s Cheesecakes – he also offers several full-sized versions in multiple flavors – are made in rented space in Ambridge, where the company has been based since its founding in April 2012.

The business, which includes Ortitay and another baker, also has a staff of seven contracted salespeople who sell the Teasecakes to groups holding fundraisers.

The sales staff has been plying a 200-mile area in Pennsylvania and West Virginia with growing success.

“It’s a great little market,” Ortitay said. “The whole idea is to grow the business and bring more people on.”

After earning a degree in sports management from Robert Morris University and a master’s degree in business administration from Stetson University in Florida, he worked in financial services and for a small consulting firm before spending more than four years in relationship banking and treasury functions at PNC Bank.

But he heeded a calling to start a business that involved food for a couple of reasons.

“To me, baking and cooking is very therapeutic,” Ortitay said.

The urge to create with food also runs in his family, he added, noting that his grandparents Joe and Candy Caruso owned and operated Caruso’s, an Italian restaurant in Wellsburg, W.Va., for many years.

It was there that as a boy he cut his teeth in the restaurant business, helping out in the kitchen.

The other side of his family had a small business, as well.

The gas station where he hopes to relocate the cheesecake business, at 97 Cross Creek Road near Avella, was owned and operated for 30 years by his paternal grandfather, the late John Ortitay.

“The entrepreneurial spirit is in the blood,” Ortitay said.

While acknowledging that he needs more space for baking, he also likes the fact that, unlike a restaurant, where ingredients have to be kept in inventory at all times, the cheesecake business, based on pre-sales, doesn’t require long-term storage.

“I don’t have to store anything,” he said, explaining that he only purchases ingredients for orders that will be baked from scratch and delivered immediately.

Like a lot of small business owners, Ortitay acknowledged that it’s difficult, particularly in the slowly recovering economy, to raise money to expand an operation.

The project was set in motion to help keep the legacy of Jason’s grandfather alive by using the building where he started his business in the early 1960s.

Ortitay said his long-term vision for the business is to launch Jason’s Cheesecake operations across the Midwest.

While his plans for expansion are definitely skewed toward increasing production efficiency, he also plans to include a small retail operation that he said will encourage people to drop by, listen to music and enjoy cheesecake and coffee.

The bulk of the project is construction related to converting the building into a bakery.

His Kickstarter campaign, which has a video explaining his business, seeks $45,000, including $10,000 in equipment such as ovens, sinks, refrigeration, food processors, prep tables and a cash register; $7,000 for permits and tap-in fees; and $25,000 in construction and renovations, including a new exterior facade, paint, ceiling, HVAC, bathrooms and glass doors.

As of Friday, just nine supporters had contributed a total of $655 to the project, which was launched Oct. 30 and ends Nov. 30, but Ortitay remains optimistic.

“A lot of projects don’t get funded until the last week,” he said.

But like any good business owner, he has a Plan B and Plan C if the Kickstarter funding isn’t met.

He’s talked with a building owner in Avella about the possibility of moving to a 2,500- to 3,000-square-foot space.

He also has an option of relaunching the Kickstarter campaign after a brief hiatus, or contacting the U.S. Small Business Administration for a loan if his revenue continues to grow.

He may pursue yet another avenue for growth, Ortitay said.

“I’ve been looking for investors if all else fails,” he said.

For more information on Jason’s Cheesecake Co., including videos, access www.jasonscheesecakecompany.com. For information about ordering, call 724-252-BAKE (2253).

Michael Bradwell has been business editor for the Observer-Reporter since 1995, and was named editor of The Energy Report in 2012. He joined the newspaper in 1990 as a general assignment reporter in the Greene County bureau and has also worked as a copy editor. A 1974 graduate of Pennsylvania State University with a degree in English, he began his career at the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette. Prior to joining the O-R, he served as public relations director for Old Bedford Village, account executive at two Pittsburgh public relations agencies and copywriter for the country’s largest wholesaler of mutual funds.

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