The perfect cheesecake was born in Lincoln, Neb.
More specifically, it was born at Union College’s Culver Hall and Cooper’s Apartments. For two years, Marcus Morris, an ambitious psychology major, matched wits with cream cheese, sugar, sour cream and eggs.
It all began in Culver Hall where as a student Morris collected, recreated, and, of course, tested recipes from around the world. In time, he sought his own distinct product and his own baker’s “voice.” His senior year as a village student living in Cooper Apartments, he relished having his own kitchen in which to work. And yet, as Morris recalled, “I still did my best research and development at Culver.” With each new variation to the recipe, he’d bring samples back to his home dormitory.
In 2006, after two years of trial and error, Morris knew he had found it—a distinctly Midwestern cheesecake. Unlike the dense and sour cream-rich cakes of New York, his cheesecake was creamy, light, affordable, and yes, delectable.
But what to call his tasty creations?
“The name came while still living in Culver,” recalled Morris. “When you think of good cheesecake, you think classy, refined. That’s when the name came—‘High Society Cheesecake.’”
Yet even as he honed his baking skills, he began putting his psychology education to use as a drug and rehabilitation counselor. After classes, he worked at a nearby treatment center, counselling addicts toward recovery. “I loved the work, helping people. I have such a heart for struggling people. But I quickly realized I would need more schooling to continue in the field. Was that what I truly wanted from life?”
Morris graduated with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in May ’06. Graduation was only the beginning of an amazing year.
Even as a student, he had begun supplying cheesecake to restaurants, coffee hangouts, and pastry shops throughout Lincoln. The reviews exceeded even his high expectations. And yet, maintaining a growing demand for his product while counseling addicts pulled at him. It was as if he had two full-time jobs. One of them had to give.
His passion was customer service. And cheesecake. What’s more, by summer 2006, Morris could see he was garnering something businesses crave—a demand.
A little help from friends
Psychology is not a traditional path to learning about supply and demand, inventories, and bottom lines. Morris needed mentors. It turns out they were there all along.
But an education can take place as much outside the classroom as in. In Morris’ case, he learned a lot simply by riding the bus with Jerome Lang.
“Anytime I rode in the bus with Jerome Lang, I made it a point to sit in the seat behind him.” There, Morris could learn basics of business and even life. Perhaps more importantly, he gained inspiration. And Lang loved to chat with him, encouraging him.
Morris remembered, “When I contemplated opening an actual shop, I went to Jerome first.”
Morris told Lang his dream, how people might come to a brick-and-mortar shop for a warm welcome, good food, and the best cheesecake in the Midwest. Lang took him under his wing, offered him all the wisdom he had, plus a five-year lease.
In November ’06, a mere six months after graduation, Morris opened shop in a small mall on the corner of 48th Street, just north of Old Cheney Road.
Once he opened shop, Morris recalls how Union’s long-time baker Bernie Rieke, whom he considered a baking master, joined in the enthusiasm. He immediately carried Morris’ cheesecakes alongside the college’s baked goods at Wheatberries.
“I can’t tell you,” said Morris, “how much it meant to me that he did that, that my own school believed in me enough to carry my product.” And it would be an understatement to say his cheesecakes are relished by Union students.
As if the year couldn’t be more magical, in 2007, less than a year after launching the shop, he married his Union College sweetheart and the love of his life, Rachel Jahn. She, too, attended Union College, where the two met in 2005 thanks to a mutual friend. From Union, Rachel went to cosmetology school, but eventually returned to finish her business degree at Union in 2011.
Rachel Morris has become his closest friend in life and business. And with that comes perks. She loves nothing more than watching Morris at work—his feisty drive, his determination, and his audacity in the face of any challenge. Plus, as she put it, “I love working next to my hot hubby!”
A season of sadness
But that year ended with some sadness.
Morris found the greatest inspiration from his dad, Monte Morris, who managed the Adventist Book Center on Prescott Avenue for years. From his dad, Morris learned about making customers feel welcome, about creating an inviting store and about treating people right. Best of all, he was his son’s biggest cheerleader from day one.
“I’d come home and say, ‘Hey, Dad. I made $140 today.’ And he’d pump his fist and say, ‘All right!’” Of course both of them knew $140 wasn’t much, but the encouragement meant everything.
Sadly, in April ’07, less than a year after opening the shop, his dad died of a heart attack. Monte had planned to work at his son’s shop, and it had been his dream to work alongside his son.
But his dad’s influence can be seen all through the shop—in the quality, the service, and now the décor, based on a picture of a unique train Morris found in his dad’s things after he died, which now hangs in the shop.
High Society Cheesecake truly is a family affair. Even his mom, Mary Morris, who graduated from Union in 1992 with a degree in nursing, makes the soup each day. “The soup is to die for,” explained one frequent patron.
Started in faith, remaining in faith
Marcus and Rachel Morris are not ashamed of their faith. It took faith to launch the business. It takes faith sometimes to get up early in the morning to meet a day’s orders. But it is a faith, not in business acumen, but in God.
To this day, he closes his shop for the Sabbath they value as a family. They serve foods that are vegetarian-friendly. And they remain connected and active in the College View church—a connection that has gotten them through both tough and good times.
This is a legacy Morris received from his parents, his teachers and Union mentors.
A growing venture
Today, you can find Morris’ cheesecake in every Hy-vee and Super Saver grocery store in Lincoln, not to mention dozens of specialty shops. Like all good entrepreneurs, Morris is thinking ahead, and is about to begin shipping nationally and internationally.
“Even if you come into our shop and the tables and chairs seem empty, I guarantee we are hard at work.” Indeed, they are busily filling orders that seem to be growing by the day.
However, if you are ever in Lincoln, it is a must that you stop in at Marcus and Rachel’s shop, still on the corner of the small mall on 48th near Old Cheney, and enjoy a meal. The Lincoln Journal Star newspaper gives the food and the place an A. Patrons attest that it is some of the best food around. And be prepared to be warmly welcomed.
And absolutely plan to have some cheesecake.
By Mike Menard