By ARIEL HERNANDEZ
Following a history of falling victim to sexual harassment in the workplace, College Point’s Lisa Cotoggio, 57, put her foot down and decided to venture out on her own and do what she loves—baking her grandmother’s cheesecake.
“I couldn’t find a decent job, so I created one and figured I’d be working for the best boss ever because it would be myself,” Cotoggio told the Queens Tribune.
Cotoggio said that looking back on her childhood is gratifying since she remembers selling snow cones that she would make from her Little Mister Frosty snow cone maker. She also created her own lemonade stand.
Cotoggio said that her mother was charitable, so she grew up giving away food and toys to local charities and homeless children.
As a teen in the 1970s, Cotoggio said that it wasn’t as necessary to attend college as it is today, when “employers are laying off the elderly with no degrees to hire young people with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.”
Cotoggio worked in the hospitality and car industries—and said that sexual harassment was rampant in both lines of work.
Her experiences in both fields were so severe that she has two active lawsuits, one in each of the above fields.
In 1986, Cotoggio worked at a restaurant in Manhattan and she alleges that she was fired because she wouldn’t “sleep with the owner.”
Cotoggio said that chefs, waiters and managers would often force themselves on her or ask her to have sex. She said that chefs would often make inappropriate comments, such as “blow me.
“At first I would keep my distance from them, so that it’s not a problem [and] that I don’t lose my job,” said Cotoggio. “But when I lost my job because I didn’t sleep with someone, I contacted human [resources].”
Cotoggio said that she has been sexually harassed multiple times.
“It happens so frequently and people don’t understand how rampant it really is out there,” said Cotoggio. “I worked in the hospitality industry for close to 30 years and I have to say I’ve been sexually harassed two dozen times in so many places.”
Cotoggio also currently has a lawsuit against a Mercedes-Benz car dealership in Long Island, where she alleges that multiple coworkers groped her.
“You’d think that since Mercedes-Benz is such an iconic brand, is a Fortune 500 company, the cars are so expensive and it’s a prestigious brand, that something like this wouldn’t happen,” said Cotoggio. “But it was really bad at this place. The general manager wasn’t doing anything about it. Another woman was being harassed there too, but she was afraid to come forward. It happened to me so many times and twice I’ve gone after them.”
After going through a channel of managers, Cotoggio was able to obtain the support of a manager, who was fired for trying to help her.
“Sometimes the sexual harassment in restaurants and car dealerships is so uncomfortable that when you wake up in the morning, you’re sick to your stomach because you know that’s going to happen when you get there,” said Cotoggio. “It comes a point where I can’t keep going through that kind of treatment everywhere I go for a job.”
Cottogio, who was in tears while reliving the experiences, said that when she chose to fight back against the harassment, she was told by friends, acquaintances and even lawyers that pursuing legal action could ruin her chances at finding a job.
“They would say that if these cases receive a lot of attention and employers find out about it, I’d have a hard time getting a job,” said Cotoggio. “You shouldn’t have a hard time finding a job because you were harassed.”
Cotoggio said that she pursued jobs at car dealerships and in the hospitality and film industries, and was harassed in all three lines of work, which she said are the worst fields for women.
“All of that happening and making it so uncomfortable to find a job is what pushed me to start a business of my own, so that I didn’t have to contend with that,” said Cotoggio. “I knew I was better off starting my own business, so I started playing around with my grandma’s recipe.”
She remembered when her grandmother used to bake her “famous cheesecake,” and Cotoggio would go to local restaurants and Whitestone, where her grandmother lived, to sell them.
“Everyone loved my grandma’s cheesecake,” said Cotoggio. “It’s light and fluffy, not dense like the others out there. A lot of people who make cheesecake use baker’s cheese. They don’t use real cream cheese, so they’re very dense and packed heavy. My grandma’s recipe is different and not like any cheesecake on the market.”
After researching ideas, she came up with a cheesecake sandwich idea.
“No one has ever done it,” said Cotoggio.
She immediately trademarked her cheesecake sandwich and got to work. Cotoggio’s Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches currently have three flavors: plain, milk chocolate and chocolate chip.
“When I first created the sandwich, I started with the graham cracker on each side, but the top was too crumbly and I wanted the right cookie—because if you bite into it and it’s a hard cookie, it will cause the cheesecake to shoot out the other side, so I needed a really soft cookie,” said Cotoggio.
The plain cheesecake sandwich is made with a soft golden biscotti cookie, while the chocolate chip and milk chocolate sandwiches are made with a soft chocolate biscotti cookie.
“I chose to create a milk chocolate cheesecake sandwich because milk chocolate is my mother’s favorite, and I chose chocolate chip because that’s my favorite,” said Cotoggio.
Cotoggio said that she plans to expand her flavors and create an Amaretto-flavored cheesecake sandwich for the holidays.
Currently, Grandma’s Cheesecake Sandwiches are sold at Empire Market, located at 14-26 College Point Blvd.; Varsi Deli, located at 1572 149th St.; Robert’s Butcher Shop, located at 209-09 35th Ave.; and Marino Brothers Supermarket, located at 163-07 29th Ave., for $5.99 apiece.
Cotoggio’s goal is to grow her business in the manner of the popular Baked by Melissa, a chain of bakeries that specializes in miniature cupcakes.
Cotoggio is currently working on selling her cheesecake sandwiches to more shops and supermarkets in addition to launching her website this week.
For more information visit grandmascheesecakesandwiches.com.
Reach Ariel Hernandez at (718) 357-7400 x144, firstname.lastname@example.org or @reporter_ariel.