The Cheesecake Factory’s legendary menu, explained -

The Cheesecake Factory’s legendary menu, explained –

The Cheesecake Factory menu is over 20 pages long and contains 250 items. The menu was seemingly written by someone who was hungry for everything they could think of but couldn’t name what they actually wanted at that moment. The dishes, mostly sandwiches and pastas and of course cheesecakes, all have names and descriptions. Occasionally, a female first name precedes the actual dish, indicating a personal endorsement for a fresh turkey sandwich or chicken and avocado salad from a “Sheila” or a “Renee” you’ve never met. The burgers are not hamburgers but Glamburgers. Getting shrimp scampi along with the steak Diane is known as a “Factory Combination.”

There’s something uncanny about the chain. The very combination of words “The Cheesecake Factory” evokes the idea of a humble, blue-collar dessert diner, yet every Cheesecake Factory looks like what would happen if a time-traveling Italian artisan drew Ancient Egypt from memory. Somewhere between the chicken samosas, the Skinnylicious section, and the Americana Cheeseburger Glamburger®, between the towering columns, overstuffed booths, and the free refills on soda, the veil between sense and nonsense, lucidity and lunacy, and good and bad dissolves.

This, I’m told, is what makes the Cheesecake Factory a special place — a brave, unapologetic lack of self-awareness or pretense. The rules that govern regular restaurants have no power over the Cheesecake Factory. If there is one rule at the Cheesecake Factory, it’s that the conventional wisdom of the restaurant industry — keeping costs low, concepts simple, and menus under 200 items — is meant to be ignored.

Year after year since 1978, the Cheesecake Factory has succeeded in abundance. Tens of thousands of diners pile into its 211 North American locations (the company opened its 211th location in Corpus Christi, Texas, in December). In monetary terms, that amounted to around $750 million of revenue per quarter in 2021 and nearly $3 billion per fiscal year. The Cheesecake Factory is often heralded as one of if not the “favorite” sit-down chain restaurant to eat at.

And while it has captured hearts by fulfilling the promise of cheesecake and the guarantee of something for everyone, it remains a case study in everything a restaurant should never do. So how do they do it?

The Cheesecake Factory: No thoughts, just vibes

Plainly describing what a Cheesecake Factory looks like to someone who has never been to one may cause them to think you’re lying or trying to trick them. That’s what happens when you invite someone to imagine the unimaginable. Who would expect that you could walk from your local mall right into a place where Egyptian columns flank Greco-Roman accents, where mosaics buttress glass fixtures that look like the Eye of Sauron? With soaring ceilings, interior palm trees, and faux-wicker chairs (but, somehow, no water feature), it is a factory only of chaotic phantasmagoria.

The rhyme and reason behind the restaurant’s decor is that Cheesecake Factories are meant to evoke wealth and extravagance. And what better exemplifies American opulence than the unrestrained acquisition of things already deemed splendid from everywhere but home? All these touches are markers of luxury, features and silhouettes borrowed from the places that rich people see on their rich people vacations. Smashing them all together should, if aesthetic functioned like arithmetic, create the most classiest place in history.

“Our goal was to give guests a sense they were getting a lot of value for their money. We wanted to give the place a feeling of a high-end restaurant and have the guests surprised by the relatively inexpensive pricing,” Rick McCormack, Cheesecake Factory’s former VP of design for over 13 years, explained to me. McCormack was part of the company’s major expansion in the ’90s, and went on to design for clients like MGM Resorts, BJ’s Restaurants, and Seasons 52.

The finishes, he said, included real granite and marble and the walls were hand-rubbed, creating a unique painted finish. Murals were done by traveling artisans, and the light fixtures were custom-blown. All these details were to make the place feel special for diners, that they were going to a destination rather than just another restaurant.

“We knew we were successful when we heard of people coming to the restaurant for special occasions — prom dinners, birthdays, anniversaries,” he told me.

As you might expect of a “special occasion” place, the Cheesecake Factory is well-loved. According to National Restaurant News, an American trade publication that covers customer trends, consumers (millennials in particular) regularly rank the Cheesecake Factory as one of the best chain restaurants, as well as having the best ambiance and the best quality food. A chain restaurant triple threat if there was ever one.

But if you ask people what it is exactly that they love about the Cheesecake Factory, beyond the seemingly universal regard for the brown bread, the results are a little more mixed. According to an extremely unofficial poll among Cheesecake Factory enthusiasts I know, one common refrain wasn’t a specific dish but rather the vibe that the Cheesecake Factory provided, which is something like a simulacrum of fine dining, accessible for all ages, especially kids. (Also key: the variety, but more on that in a minute.)

“I thought it was the pinnacle of a nice restaurant in high school,” one person told me. “A fun treat that wasn’t toooo fancy,” said another; “not that pricey compared to most nice restaurants,” said a third.

“I mean, the Cheesecake Factory is the Michelin three stars of chain restaurants,” pastry chef and Food Network star Zac Young told me.

Young first encountered the Cheesecake Factory as a teen in Newton, Massachusetts, at the “fancy mall,” brought there by a group of girlfriends toting Prada bags. He knew it was going to be a luxury experience. Girls with Prada bags only eat at places with food as high status as Prada bags. Nearly every person I spoke to explained to me that Cheesecake Factories, like finicky plants in good soil, only appear in “fancy” malls.

Restaurants exist that have better food than the Cheesecake Factory. Plenty have better drinks. And yes, some have better cheesecakes. But it seems there aren’t that many restaurants that can out-vibe the Cheesecake Factory.

“The Cheesecake Factory went through a big expansion in the ’90s, which is when millennials started encountering it as kids. That allowed the brand to be connected to a deeply nostalgic time period in millennial life,” Hillary Dixler Canavan, the restaurants editor at Eater, explained to me. Her theory as to why the restaurant has such a chokehold on Americans is that it’s extremely popular with millennials.

For taxonomy purposes, millennials are now pushing 40, born between the years of 1981 and 1996. They’re the largest generation in the US, represent the majority of the workforce, and are powerful consumers. Their desires drive culture, dictating the way businesses run and what they sell. In the Cheesecake Factory’s case, millennial fondness for the restaurant is integral to its popularity.

The ’90s represented economic prosperity for a lot of Americans. Millennials were teens and tweens then (pre-social media and just at the beginnings of the mass internet), and going out to eat and going out to malls were the highlights of their social routine.

For a generation that entered the workforce during the 2007 financial crisis, the idea of going to a shopping center with friends and eating at the Cheesecake Factory is a teenage dream. Call it regression or revisionist history, but drinking bottomless, sugary strawberry lemonade from giant plastic cups was maybe one of the times when they felt perfectly happy.

McCormack’s account lines up with Dixler Canavan’s theory about nostalgia. Millennials who went to the Cheesecake Factory, especially for special occasions, associate it with good feelings. If the restaurant is where you spent your parents’ anniversary or your own birthday, then it’s going to be tethered to happiness. Under the warm, gauzy filter that nostalgia provides, it’s hard for Cheesecake Factory aficionados, especially ones hardened by adulthoods that were punctuated by various financial crises, the fallout from 9/11, climate change, and a pandemic, not to look back at the restaurant without some kind of wistful sentimentality. Going there now isn’t necessarily about creating new experiences; it is about chasing a feeling you felt there before.

The Cheesecake Factory menu, explained

In my informal survey of Factory fans, it wasn’t just the memories that stood out, but the absolutely stunning variety. “It’s the ultimate our-group-can’t-agree-on-a-place restaurant,” said one responder, “A mall food court with table service.”

“They have a very democratic menu,” said another, adding that “there’s something for everyone at Cheesecake Factory.” At 20-plus pages (according to a Cheesecake Factory spokesperson, menus vary slightly depending on location, which may change the page count), the menu is legendary, an icon.

And browsing the Cheesecake Factory’s original 1978 Beverly Hills menu is like looking at pictures of a movie star before they got famous. Its signature spiral binding is missing, as are the paradise coladas. Ahi poke nachos wouldn’t be invented for decades. It didn’t aim to have something for everyone.

The original Cheesecake Factory menu from 1978.
Courtesy of the Cheesecake Factory

The typeface — capped entrees and serifs galore — is largely the same, but all of the items fit on one page, like a resumé. There are a mere 26 items (with options to customize), divided into three sections: “Specialties,” “Salads and Cold Plates,” and “Sandwich Creations.” Three different burgers are in the “specialties” section; they might seem more at home in the “sandwich creations” but I’m no arbiter of lunch food taxonomy.

The expansion, according to the Cheesecake Factory’s origin story, happened because of owner David Overton’s unwillingness to let any other local restaurant compete. As he told Thrillist in 2018, “I didn’t want another restaurant to open down the block and take my business away,” and so began adding anything someone might want to order. The more dishes — Mexican food, different kinds of pasta— that they added to the original 26, the more people responded positively.

Overton told Thrillist in that same interview that he wouldn’t have made the menu so big and expansive if he had known more about the industry and how restaurants are supposed to operate. But what he created was the Cheesecake Factory’s lasting legacy.

“Its success comes from offering something for everyone. A large group can go there and everyone will be able to find something they like at a reasonable cost,” McCormack, the former VP of design, told me.

Things that everyone likes usually involve cheese and carbs. According to a source with deep knowledge of sales, the most popular dish on the menu is Fettuccine Alfredo, which is ordered over 200,000 times per month. Avocado Egg Roll orders come out at about 140,000 in the same period, and Fried Mac and Cheese orders hover around 126,000.

“Sometimes people go after creativity and sometimes people just want something delicious that is not as intimidating,” Chef Brandon Cook, executive chef of culinary research & development (a.k.a. one of the heads in the Cheesecake Factory test kitchen), told me. “And when you’ve got a great Fettuccine Alfredo — and our guests tell us that they love our version — we love it.”

Despite the fact that some meals have been on the roster for over 30 years, the menu does change. Items are swapped in and out every six months. Cook was coy about what happened to my favorite entree from my youth, the fried shrimp scatter (he offered the admittedly similar fried shrimp platter as an alternative), but did explain that getting a new item onto the menu is an extensive process.

The Cheesecake Factory still draws inspiration from other restaurants, including from fine dining or modern cooking. Cook explained to me that the restaurant’s extremely popular fried mac and cheese balls are a riff and homage to French chef Alain Ducasse. “He’s a huge fan of the Cheesecake Factory,” Cook told me.

For his casual concept restaurant Spoon, Ducasse created a mac and cheese terrine. Cook and his team were in love with it not just because of how it tasted but because “it was just so pretty.” But they understood that they couldn’t simply just imitate it because of how complex it was and how it would go over with diners. Macaroni and cheese, Cook told me, wasn’t even on the menu at this point. Through extensive trial and error, though, they were able to replicate it with a Cheesecake Factory spin.

“We were baking and it was super creamy. It was awesome. But we had no way to reheat it,” Cook told me. “It was out of necessity that we basically made these balls and breaded and deep fried them because we had no other way to reheat them. When it started on the menu, it was dead last in our sales. And now it’s second place behind the avocado egg rolls in the appetizer category.”

Cook’s adventurous and extensive food knowledge (he spends every morning reading trend reports and perusing Instagram to keep up) and the idea that the Cheesecake Factory is so popular because it’s built on nostalgia and a familiar combination of carbs feel like two different things. One pushes the restaurant forward and the other requires the restaurant to stay the same. But they’re actually much closer than it would appear.

“What I hope people think of with us is that we are trying to bring whatever America wants to eat to our menu,” Cook told me. “So many other restaurant companies are driven by marketing departments, purchasing departments, and those are all necessary departments. But we’re chasing deliciousness.”

The idea of “chasing deliciousness” sounds as gooey as a deep-fried mac and cheese ball, but it makes sense, too. Deliciousness isn’t logical or smart; it doesn’t follow a rule book. Deliciousness may even be silly.

The Cheesecake Factory is a marvel

Flip the hood of the Cheesecake Factory and you’ll find, as Cheesecake Factory employees will happily tell you, food that doesn’t come from a bottle, nor is it simply thrown in a microwave.

Proteins, sauces, veggies, the dressings that go in their gigantic salads, the chicken marsala and mushrooms — it’s cooked on the spot. If there’s any part of the Cheesecake Factory that resembles an industrial machine, it’s the multiple stations and line cooks needed to create handmade food for every meal. Ironically, the only foods that aren’t cooked fresh are the cheesecakes and baked desserts; they’re made at an off-site bakery and shipped in.

“Their quality, their execution, and consistency across the country — it is always the same. And that’s a compliment! That’s impeccable,” pastry chef and Food Network star Young says, “The sauces, the dressings, everything is made in-house. That level of consistency doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

The sheer work is something Cook, the current test kitchen head, is intimately familiar with. When he started at the Cheesecake Factory in February 2000, he was a line cook. On the first day of the job, he said, he got a recipe book that was “two inches”’ thick — a tome he assumed was for the entire restaurant. It was going to be a daunting task to memorize it, but doable. To Cook’s chagrin, it was just the recipe book for his specific unit, the sauté station.

He trained for three weeks before he was allowed to cook.

“My station alone had five cooks that would work just 16 burners,” Cook said of his first experience on the line. “It was one guy calling out the guests and starting dishes. It was one guy finishing and garnishing all the dishes, and three guys just cooking. That was just one station.”

Operating within this intricate symphony was daunting to Cook. He thought, by way of prior experience at a Boston restaurant near Fenway Park, that he’d be used to the volume. When the Red Sox would play, that rush would plunge the kitchen into a frenzy. But it still didn’t prepare him for the Cheesecake Factory’s magnitude. The walk-in refrigerator, he said, “was like Oz.”

Efficiency colliding with sheer number of employees allows the restaurant to feature a menu that contains a section that includes “appetizer salads,” “appetizers,” and “small plates and snacks,’’ a section that is completely different from the section containing “salads, flatbread pizzas, and lunch.” It’s how you can execute a menu where ahi tuna on crispy rice shares a section with a quesadilla and fried macaroni and cheese.

To say that making things from scratch is unusual in restaurant culture — particularly chain restaurant culture — is an understatement. Squeezing ranch dressing from a bottle or opening up a bag of soup and reheating it is so much easier, cheaper, and faster than making it yourself. With each freshly made plate, there’s also the risk of mucking up a dish, and with that, unhappy diners.

“Think of it like a factory — the more touch points you have, the more opportunity you have to mess something up,” Young explained to me. “There’s a copious amount of time even for line cook training.”

Because of all these possible points of failure, changing that iconically vast menu is no joke. Dishes must be able to be replicated over and over again, so Cook and his team need to be deliberate with ingredients. “When it comes to new items, since it’s not just open a bag or open a box or, you know, scoop this or scoop that, we have to put a lot of weight on training and making sure that our staff members are comfortable making the dish before we even offer it on the menu.”

It’s not just that the Cheesecake Factory is cooking homemade meals for diners from the 250-plus item menu each day — a daunting task in itself. But it’s also replicating that over and over, year after year, across 200-plus restaurants.

“I have a deep love of chain restaurants period, but Cheesecake is the pinnacle. And the more experience I’ve had in the restaurant industry, it blows my mind even more that they can deliver day in and day out,” Young added.

Common sense for restaurant success is actually the opposite of everything the Cheesecake Factory does. Minimize labor, minimize ingredients, minimize everything. Restaurants are expensive to maintain and trimming excess helps survivability. The restaurant industry revolves around the thinnest of margins, and the common refrain (which should be familiar to anyone who’s ever seen an episode of Kitchen Nightmares) is to simplify everything.

The company’s gigantic menu, dedication to making its own food, and close association with a lavish, in-person dining experience were almost its undoing in the first year of the pandemic. Like many restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory was hit unbelievably hard when people weren’t allowed to eat inside restaurants. The Cheesecake Factory furloughed 41,000 of its hourly workers in March 2020. That same year, the SEC charged and settled with the company for “misleading disclosures” about how it failed to admit that it was losing $6 million in cash per week during the pandemic.

The company’s saving grace was that it pivoted to delivery, turning its extensively trained servers into cashiers, and on and on. In a securities filing that August, it said it had rehired “the majority” of furloughed employees.

Last July, the company reported record revenue, $769 million, in its second quarter of 2021 and improved on that with $832.6 million in its second quarter of 2022. It’s a hard-to-fathom number that the company says might have been even bigger had it not been tempered by inflation and lack of consumer spending.

“It totally defies restaurant logic. And it’s not to say that any one thing that they do is completely unique, it’s that they’re doing all these things at the same time,” Dixler Canavan, the Eater editor, told me. “And I think the fact that that has worked for them just kind of suggests that they’ve cracked the code.”

The Cheesecake Factory breaks rules in a way that most of us don’t feel like we can. It’s practically comedic: This thing that shouldn’t exist, especially in a notoriously unforgiving industry, somehow does. Better, fancier, more coherent restaurants have all bit the dust, yet this mall girl-approved, Byzantine spectacle with a pseudo-industrial name keeps chugging along. At the Cheesecake Factory, “something for everyone” doesn’t just mean a hilariously exhaustive menu served amid America’s most chaotic high-low aesthetic mix; it also means a homemade combination of comfort, nostalgia, and deliciousness that can’t help but work.

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December 24, 2022 at 05:51AM

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