Cotoggio, who is also a published mystery crime novelist, went back and forth between different jobs, but nothing was panning out. Last January, she decided to start her own business.
As Cotoggio poured over lists of ideas and business plans, she kept circling back to one thought: her late grandmother’s cheesecake recipe.
Nearly two years later, Cotoggio is the proud proprietor of Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches, which opened its first storefront on Clintonville Street in Whitestone back in September.
“I just wanted to try something fun that people would like,” she said of the idea behind her business.
In an innovative take on a beloved family recipe, Cotoggio patented the “cheesecake sandwich,” which is light and fluffy cheesecake filling between two delicate cookies.
“Nowadays, everybody is fast paced and thinking about their health,” Cotoggio explained. “This is a grab and go. You pop it out and eat the cheesecake in your hand.”
Growing up, Cotoggio maintained a close relationship with her grandmother Raphaella, and has been baking her cheesecake recipe for a long time. In the 90s, while Raphaella was still alive, Cotoggio began making full size cakes in her mother’s kitchen and selling them in several local restaurants.
Before arriving at the idea for cheesecake sandwiches, Cotoggio’s original plan was to open a food truck and sell cakes by the slice. However, after encountering a waiting list for a license from the city that was backed up for over a decade, she was forced to redraw plans.
Thus, the cheesecake sandwich was born in its original three flavors: plain, chocolate chip, and milk chocolate. Cotoggio began using the kitchen at a friend’s bakery in Long Island to produce her sweets.
“I would sell them out of a cooler up Northern Boulevard to the car dealers and service shops,” Cotoggio said. “And people started buying them like crazy.”
Eventually, she hired a food distributor to place the product in local grocery stores like Benateri’s in College Point, Varsi Deli in Whitestone, and Robert’s Butcher Shop in Bayside.
Cotoggio says Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches will be available in Fairway’s frozen aisle after Thanksgiving.
In April of this year, Cotoggio set out to find her own space after losing access to the kitchen in her friend’s bakery. Three months later, she stumbled upon the business’s current storefront, which conveniently used to house another bakery and therefore was up to code for what she required.
“I thought it was fitting when I found this location, to come to Whitestone,” Cotoggio said, noting her grandparents once lived nearby on 149th Street and 3rd Avenue. “Not just because of the zoning, but also for my grandmother.
“I think it’s a tribute to her,” she continued. “It felt right to open near where she lived. She made the cheesecake her whole life just a few blocks from here.”
Today, Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches has expanded to incorporate 21 flavors, as well as cookies and other bite-sized desserts. The storefront presents a sleek and simple design, and features a kitchen loaded with state-of-the-art baking equipment straight from Italy.
“I had an Easy-Bake Oven as a kid and I loved it,” recalled Cotoggio. “And this is now my giant Easy-Bake Oven.”
It hasn’t been all fun and games though. Cotoggio refinanced her apartment, emptied out her retirement accounts, and maxed-out her credit card in order to pay for the shop, leaving her more than $200,000 in debt. Nevertheless, she finds comfort feeling the presence of her grandmother at every step along the way.
“Everything has been falling into place,” Cotoggio said. “You’ve got to keep moving, and I think that’s how entrepreneurs and the most successful people work.”
In the next three to five years, Cotoggio hopes to go national with her product in supermarkets like Whole Foods. She also foresees several Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches satellite locations throughout the city.
She may have set some lofty goals, but Cotoggio is no stranger to putting in hard work to make her vision a reality.
“You can’t dwell, you can’t close your door,” she said. “You just have to keep working through it. I think that any women out there who really want to do something shouldn’t be afraid to just go for it.”