In 1981, Valerie Wilson mastered the most decadent dessert: cheesecake. Perfected in her kitchen, the cheesecake recipe would become the core of her company, Tennessee Cheesecake. One taste was all it took for folks to get on board. Nashville restaurants started selling Valerie’s cheesecakes to diners in 1981, and today, the cheesecakes can be found online and in restaurants, at hotels and in Kroger stores across the state. More than three decades of success, expansion into a 40,000-square-foot facility and more cheesecake sales than ever are a few things worth celebrating, but it is the gal who built a family business centered around a classic dessert who deserves the recognition. Welcome Valerie Wilson as today’s FACE of Nashville!
When did you begin baking?
I started the bakery in 1981. But my interest in baking began well before that. My mother and my grandmother-in-law (with whom I was very close) were both accomplished home bakers and cooks. I still have my grandmother-in-law’s old cookbook full of handwritten recipes: chocolate butter fudge, apple crumb pie, peanut brittle, “not-too-rich fudge cake.” So I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with these important figures in my life, each of whom relished that moment of pulling a successful creation out of the oven. And I suppose their enthusiasm for baking rubbed off on me.
What inspired you to start your company?
There were a few factors at play: I was a young mother of two, trying to solve the age-old question, “How do I support my family and do work that I find fulfilling, while also being present for my children?”
Serendipity in the form of 1980s talk show host Phil Donahue introduced the next factor. I happened to see a Phil Donahue show that featured a guest who had started baking desserts in her home kitchen and was finding success delivering them to restaurants in New York City. I saw no reason I couldn’t do that, too. And the rest is history.
How long did it take you to master the cheesecake recipe you use today?
After deciding that my niche would be cheesecake (it was the top-selling dessert in the country at the time), I spent weeks in the library poring over recipe and baking books. I took my research home and started experimenting in my kitchen, combining ideas here and tweaking ingredients there. All in all, it took me about a month of solid work to perfect the original cheesecake recipe (we like to say, “the cheesecake that started it all”).
What was the first restaurant to sell your cheesecake?
My first successful sale was to Fifth Quarter Steakhouse and Sailmakers restaurants (both restaurant brands were owned by Shoney’s Corporation). I knocked on Ray Danner’s door (owner and former chairman of Shoney’s Inc.), made my pitch and handed him a cheesecake. He loved it and asked when I could supply him enough cheesecakes to stock in 12 of his restaurants.
Where can the cheesecakes be found today?
Our cheesecakes and other desserts (we also make cakes, pies and dessert bars) can be found primarily in restaurants, hotels and other foodservice establishments across the United States. We also sell to Kroger stores within Tennessee.
How has the company changed in the past three decades?
We’ve gone from a tiny operation in my home kitchen to a 30-person production team (and growing) in a 40,000-square-foot facility. And somewhere along the way, my children grew up and are now heavily involved in the company — my son is the CEO, and my daughter oversees purchasing. Our business has also experienced the rise of the internet and technology, which has completely changed the way we do pretty much everything. And we have diversified our dessert offerings over the past 10 years. Cheesecake is still our niche dessert and our core item, but we also offer other desserts. This allows us to fill the need that many of our customers have: a custom dessert solutions partner. One thing that hasn’t changed? We still care deeply about the people who make our desserts and the people who eat our desserts. This is what motivates our team every day.
What is the best part of your job? The most challenging part?
The best part of my job is seeing the company and its wonderful team grow and expand.
The most challenging part of my job is solving all the unique problems that naturally arise from the growth of our company.
What is your typical day like?
A typical day for me includes research, formulating new recipes and lots of baking in the test kitchen at our facility. I work closely with our sales team to develop ideas and samples for prospective customers, so that often looks like meetings and brainstorming sessions. I also work closely with our production team when we close a sale of a new item. Scaling an item from small test/sample batches to large wholesale batches while maintaining quality and consistency requires a team effort and lots of positivity.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
I love growing and tending plants in my garden. I spend a lot of my downtime working in my garden at home. I dream of owning a greenhouse and growing/selling flowers and plants.
How do you relax and unwind?
I practice yoga and meditation every day. It’s part of my morning routine.
What books can be found on your bedside table?
I enjoy reading historical fiction and also books about mindfulness and meditation. Currently on my bedside table: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and You Are the Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter by Dr. Joe Dispenza.
What are three things you can’t live without, aside from faith, family and friends?
My dogs, my hot tub and hot tea
Thank you to Val Wilson for sharing your story and your cheesecake, and a special thanks to Ashley Hylbert for today’s gorgeous photos!
With 23 years of nursing experience and 16 years as a lactation consultant (not to mention her firsthand experience as a mother and now grandmother), Noreen Webb is not only passionate about working at TriStar StoneCrest, she’s also well-versed in the benefits, challenges and myths associated with breastfeeding. CLICK HERE to meet our newest FACE of TriStar!