This Bronx bakery and its Holocaust survivor founder have been making cheesecake the same way for 63 years


(New York Jewish Week) — Near the northern terminus of the 1 train, just south of Van Cortlandt Park, an unassuming Bronx storefront has been producing thousands of dense, delectable cheesecakes each day for more than 60 years.

Adorned with a simple red-and-blue sign and occupying the same storefront throughout its history, S&S Cheesecake has become the stuff of legend: Though other spots — say, Junior’s — may have better name recognition, many in-the-know New Yorkers consider S&S’s cheesecakes to be the best in the city. What’s more, its cheesecake recipe hasn’t changed one bit since Holocaust survivor Fred Schuster, 98, first opened the kosher bakery in 1960.

Though Schuster remains a regular presence at the bakery, these days S&S Cheesecake is operated by one of his daughters, Brenda Ben-Zaken, and her husband Yair. But other than a few nods to modernity — an espresso machine and a small cafe for dine-in enjoyment; upgraded equipment to increase output to 2,000 cheesecakes a day — little has changed in the past six decades.

“The secret is to bake with love and serve with pride and passion,” Yair Ben-Zaken told the New York Jewish Week of the shop’s success. Since its founding, S&S has supplied cheesecakes to countless restaurants and shops, from as far away as Alaska to as close as the iconic Upper West Side grocery Zabar’s. Their products are available for nationwide shipping via their web site or Goldbelly as well.

Ben-Zaken and Schuster spoke to the New York Jewish Week on a sunny, temperate morning just a few days ahead of Shavuot — a holiday when Jews traditionally eat cheesecake and other dairy food. (Shavuot begins this year on Thursday evening.) Ben-Zaken was busy packing up hundreds of cheesecakes that he is shipping around the country, as well as several that S&S donates to the Riverdale Jewish Center, the Orthodox synagogue where he and Schuster are members.

“It gets busy with Shavuot, [but] there is a lot to celebrate with summer and graduations this time of year as well,” Ben-Zaken said. “We are feeling [the busy season] now, but it’s not the same as Christmas and Thanksgiving — those are the real cheesecake holidays for us.”

Before he established his modest cheesecake empire, Fred Schuster was born in Germany in 1925 — only eight years before Hitler came to power. “That was the end of my childhood,” Schuster said.

In an effort to keep him safe, Schuster’s parents first sent him to a Jewish boarding school near Frankfurt and, when it was forced to close down, he moved in with his grandparents. In 1938, when they became too old to take care of him, Schuster said goodbye to his family — with a commitment to see each other again — and went to live in an orphanage in Frankfurt.

Just before his 14th birthday, Schuster and other children at his orphanage were sent to Switzerland via the Kindertransport. On the train, he met a girl named Karola (middle name Ruth), who went on to become the famous sex therapist and talk show host Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

“I always say, of the group there, Dr. Ruth went into the sex business and did very well. And I went into the cheesecake business and didn’t do too badly myself,” Schuster joked.

In Switzerland, Schuster “developed a passion for baking and worked in kitchens and bakeries there,” he said. He arrived in New York in 1941, where he reunited with his parents and sister. (His father had arrived in the United States via England around 1939, and his mother and sister via France, Spain and Portugal in 1940.)

“Thank God, my parents and everybody made it here,” he said. “We are very happy here. The United States was very good to us.”

And yet, even though many of his family members survived — and Schuster is blessed with four grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren — Schuster still thinks about what the Holocaust took from him, especially his own grandparents. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I am very proud of what I have built in spite of that.”

In the 1940s and 50s, Schuster lived in Washington Heights — home to a sizable German Jewish community, including Dr. Ruth, who is still a fixture in the neighborhood at 94 — and worked as a general baker at various restaurants, where he learned to make all types of pastries. However, “cheesecake was always on my mind,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘There isn’t a good cheesecake here. Let me see what I can do.”

Yair Ben-Zaken joined the team in 1986 and works every day except for Shabbat. Pictured in the bakery in New York City, May 22, 2023. (Lily Lester)

The recipe he landed on —  a combination of eggs, vanilla, sugar, butter and heavy cream — is something Schuster calls “absolutely perfect.”

Though cheesecake may be an ancient food, Jews took to cheesecake the way a fish might take to water, according to The Nosher. Though its varieties are numerous — from light and fluffy to dense and sweet — it was Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who originated the ultra-rich dessert that’s known as New York-style (or Jewish-style) cheesecake.

That’s Schuster’s specialty, though when Schuster and his wife Sidi opened S&S Cheesecake, he baked all kinds of pastries and cakes. Quickly, however, he narrowed down the menu to only cheesecakes, the bestsellers. These days, S&S sells a chocolate mousse cheesecake, as well as strawberry-, pineapple- and cherry-topped versions of the classic original, which is flavored with vanilla. The OG — which retails in-store for $40 for an 11-inch cake and $20 for a 7-inch one — is his favorite, Schuster said, adding that he always keeps a cheesecake in his fridge for snacking.

As for Ben-Zaken, after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces as a combat soldier, then working at various food labs in Israel, he began working at the bakery in 1986. Has he dared to change the recipe? “God forbid,” said Ben-Zaken. “Once you know it’s done right, that’s it.”

Schuster, whose wife died in 2017, moved into the Ben-Zakens’ Riverdale home around eight years ago. These days, the two men spend the majority of their time together, baking and talking. “We’ve worked together for many, many years shoulder to shoulder,” said Ben- Zaken, who affectionately calls Schuster “Opa,” which is German for grandfather. “But he is still in charge, I still learn from him.”

During the course of the New York Jewish Week’s visit to the bakery, a handful of customers came in to pick up the cheesecakes for Shavuot. “It’s always worth a trip,” said a man who declined to provide his name but said he  was picking up half a dozen cheesecakes for his synagogue in Pelham Parkway. “It’d be worth the trip even if I lived in Atlantic City.”

For Ben-Zaken, his favorite part of the job is working alongside Schuster. Running S&S Cheesecake has been life-changing, he said, particularly following his recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered as an Israeli soldier.

“I think if there’s anybody that I love more than anything in the world, it is this guy. I owe him everything,” Ben-Zaken said. “But I don’t just owe him, I also just enjoy being with him all the time. He’s still young. In spirit, he’s younger than all of us.”