The family that bakes together stays together (Annabel Lee Cheescake Cafe and Bistro)

The family that bakes together stays together
By Walter Ang
September-October 2009 issue
Asian Dragon Magazine

The sweet success of a cheesecake shop, reports Walter Ang, 
confirms that
The family that bakes together stays together

TUCKED somewhere along the long stretch of Timog Ave. in Quezon City is a cheesecake shop called Annabel Lee. Once inside, customers will see colorful murals and a hodge-podge of floor treatments, from multi-colored tiles to rough stone. No interior designers were needed to develop the vibrant atmosphere, since the family that owns and runs the shop did it all on their own.

"We wanted it to look homey," explains Timmie Lee, the younger brother of the sibling tandem that manages the shop. "It started out as a different design in our plans, but we kept adding and adding elements, just like in a real house. We even put up seasonal d├ęcor like cherubs for Valentine's and tropical fish and tie-dyed lanterns for summer."

Whimsical pieces such as wall-mounted coffee mugs with metal smoke swirls and coffee mug motifs in the iron fence are just some of the "elements" Timmie speaks of. "My family designed the whole place. The murals are original designs by my older sister Tanibel, and we had an artist reproduce them. We had the wall-mounted coffee mugs custom-made in Taguig, and the grillwork of the fence custom-made in Antipolo. Even the shop logo was designed by us in just one night, while sitting around at home," he says.

It's no wonder that brother and sister are wont to discuss family ties when their shop is the topic. Annabel Lee is, after all, named for their mother. Both grew up enjoying baked goodies prepared by their mom. "Even though our mom took basic cooking classes, she developed her skills on her own, since she baked a lot for us," says Tanibel. "She bought a lot of books and played around the kitchen in her free time."

Annabel began focusing on cheesecakes because "she couldn't find any that she liked," says Tanibel. "Her recipes evolved from those found in cookbooks. She made different kinds like mango, mocha, and chocolate."

Appreciation for Annabel's creations started growing outside the family circle, such as when she would bring one to the occasional potluck affair at the bank where she works. Eventually people started to request for her goodies, offering to pay them. It wasn't long before Annabel was selling cheesecakes during the year-end holidays.

The whole family would help in the preparations. Mom baked the cakes, and their stockbroker father, Dennis, created special toppings to complement the cakes. "Since cooking is a family passion, we didn't really mind helping out when we were kids," recalls Tanibel. "We would buy felt paper and cardboard boxes in bulk from Cartimar. We had fun." This family's ventures in the kitchen took on a more entrepreneurial spirit when, "we started printing our own boxes to make them look more `professional.'"

Improved packaging inevitably gave way to the idea of opening their own little space to serve up the family specialty in 2002. Word of mouth has brought in a healthy number of customers, and success is evident with the opening of a second branch in Promenade, Greenhills in 2005. One thing that certainly helps attract traffic is the shop's name. Who wouldn't be intrigued by a name that's the same as the title of Edgar Allan Poe's poem? Yes, the same one that most of us are introduced to in high school literature class. "We have customers who come in and recite the poem!" says a visibly amused Tanibel.

With her background in marketing, Tanibel was tasked to handle operations, while brother Timmie, with a hotel and restaurant management degree tucked under his belt, is in charge of helping mom with the food. "She's still the one who primarily makes the cheesecakes at home. So here at the shop, we really serve `home-baked' cheesecakes," says Timmie.

From the simple experiments Annabel used to prepare, the range has expanded for the shop's menu. "With a wide variety of cheesecakes, we have flavors that appeal to almost everyone. We serve baked cheesecakes that are rich, heavy, and creamy. We also have chilled/cold-set cheesecakes which are lighter and have a more `marshmallow-y' texture. This is usually chosen by those who are conscious of their diet. Bestsellers include the classic blueberry cheesecake, mango, chocolate mint, and strawberry," Timmie says.

After much prodding from customers, the family now includes savory items in the menu. "Our best sellers include our US steaks, either grilled or pan-roasted. Our Stuffed Chicken is also a signature dish, with sun-dried tomatoes, bacon, and ricotta cheese. It's served with a rich real demi-glace sauce that takes 10 to 12 hours to make. We also have items that are good to share like our Persian Curry Fondue. We also serve Halibut steak cooked to perfection," says Timmie.

To keep things fresh for the customers, Tanibel changes the menu every so often. The latest introductions include sizzling salmon belly sisig and pita pizzas in three different flavors. "We play with new ingredients in the kitchen to create new interests for our customers' ever-changing tastes," Tanibel says.

For inquiries on Annabel Lee cheesecakes and branches, call tel. no. 926-6994 and 926-6995.