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Meet the People and Places of Downtown: Marcus Leslie

“I love cheesecake, I love desserts, I love food. Growing up, I can remember my dad making peach cobbler and experimenting with cakes, and I guess I picked up that spirit. If you had  asked me in high school what I was going to do when I got older, I would have told you ‘a culinary artist and a veterinarian’.

Little doggy cakes, the next big thing.

Then, about 20 years ago, I got invited to a friend’s dinner party, and she says, ‘I got your favorite dessert: cheesecake, and it’s coming out of the oven.’ Honestly, I didn’t know what she was talking about because up until that point, I had no idea that cheesecake was also a baked dessert. I just thought you put it together and put it in the fridge!

‘You’re gonna love it,’ she said, and she was right.

I loved it so much that I begged her for the recipe. She told me it was a family secret. She finally gave it to me, though, and I went to the store, got the ingredients, made some, and then started making different iterations of it to make it my own.

I think just about every food business has the same kind of start: you start making something, so you take it to your work potluck, church event, or a family get-together, and everyone is like, ‘Oh, this is so good! Keep bringing it back, we need this!’ And that’s when the light bulb goes off that says, ‘Hey, you should sell this’, and I think the first time I sold a cheesecake was because I needed rent.

20 years later I’m still making cheesecake, and now four years this October, I’ve been in business selling the thing that I love to eat.

When I was younger, I always had this desire to be respected, so I would sign my name, ‘Mr. Leslie’. When I got emails, I put ‘Mr. Leslie’ in the signature. And six or seven years ago, I recognized I had a desire to create a legacy for my family, the ones that I love, and the communities that I love. Because legacies, once you’re dead, they live on, you know? It’s not just monetary, but a legacy is something that can help a community thrive. I wanted my kids to have something, ‘Hey, are you Mr. Leslie’s kid?’, and having our family name in the brand can help make that happen.

So I called it, ‘Mr. Leslie’s Cheesecakes’.

After I started selling cheesecake, my wife said to me, ‘Capital City Market is coming in a couple years, and I think you should sell your cheesecake there’.Selling in a grocery store like Meijer? That’s a whole different ball game. I didn’t want to do it. Nobody’s buying cheesecake from me in a grocery store! All I wanted was to open up a little shop, a little hole in the wall, where people could come in and sit and drink coffee.

So I met with Tony Willis about it, right before I opened up the business in October of  2019. I told him what my wife told me I should do, and what I actually wanted to do.

And he’s like, ‘Your plan sounds great…but I actually agree with your wife, and let me tell you why.’ He told me it was going to cost close to a million dollars to open up the ‘little shop’ I wanted. He suggested wholesale was actually an easier way to go and that in this business, 2% of mom and pops are in the wealth portion of this industry, the rest is wholesale.

Then of course, 2020, happened. If I would have tried to open my little shop, I would be sleeping back in my parents’ house in Detroit.

Then I did the pitch competition with the Lansing Economic Area Partnership (LEAP_, and I told them that if I won the money, I would use the $2,000 to get new packaging and do what I needed to do to get into stores. I won the money, and that’s what I did.

Three years later, we’re in all the market formats, in 11 Meijer stores, a local grocery store, a few restaurant partners, and a lot more coming that we can’t talk about quite yet.

It definitely feels good to know that your product is not only valued, but it’s doing what you created it to do. It feels good to know that you can take an idea and take it from a dream to reality. It’s surreal, if I could put it into words. It’s a good feeling, and it’s an empowering feeling, and for someone like myself, it’s like, ‘Oh, Okay, let’s take over the world one cheesecake at a time.”

—Marcus Leslie, Mr. Leslie’s Cheesecakes