The spread of the new: when big restaurant chains get it right, everyone wins

by Marion on June 1, 2014

BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich, The Cheesecake Factory

These days, I skip breakfast. This is shocking to my sister, who says, “How can you do that? It’s one of the three most important meals!” But I just, oh, I just can’t.

As it happened, the other day, we had to drive up to the North Shore to take care of some errands and see some folks. So by the time we got to the Old Orchard mall, it was late morning and I was good and hungry.

If you’ve been visiting us here for a while, you know we love little chef-driven, locavore places. We love nose-to-tail, we love simple honest food made from fresh local ingredients. We love clever pairings and inventive approaches. And we love intimate, casual ethnic-driven places and a simple honest coffee shop and a classic bistro.

But we don’t always have the time to hunt for such honest joints, and seriously, that place might not necessarily be open for business before noon in Skokie.

A few months back, Atul Gawande, writing in the New Yorker, talked about the question of mass innovation in America. Dr. Gawande’s focus was the health care sector and its grudging approach to innovation. To show us how stubborn that refusal is, and how swiftly quality, affordable innovation can find its way to the masses, he began with an example from the food service industry. Ingenious cooking techniques and on-trend dishes created in, say, an esoteric new 32-seat storefront spot in Brooklyn find their way pretty swiftly to big, mass-market restaurants all over the continent.

How does that happen? One pathway, Dr. Gawande said, is: The Cheesecake Factory. At The Cheesecake Factory, everything (except the cheesecake, which really does come from a cheesecake factory, in California) is made in house from scratch, especially impressive when you see the enormity of the menu—and know that, every six months, a new menu comes out. Managers regularly travel to California for intense training in making the new menu items and in teaching others to make them—teaching that then radiates through all local restaurants. Quality, cost control, innovation, training, development are watchwords. The result is that pretty much anyone can find something suitable and pleasant here. If you’re a vegan, if you want a cocktail, if you want a snack, if you want fresh fish, if you need beef, if you are counting your calories, if you are the opposite of counting your calories, they’ve got something to suit you. The Cheesecake Factory serves more than 80 million people a year and I am pretty sure they mostly leave feeling really happy.

For Dr. Gawande, The Cheesecake Factory represents a potential model for speeding the sharing of innovative health care treatment. To us, it shows how a smart restaurant chain stays fresh and raises the level of dining for a broad audience. In doing so, it excites the palates of that audience, creating an appetite for more new ideas—and potential new customers, maybe, for that new little local spot.

BTW, what did I have? I chose from the “skinnylicious” menu—chicken tacos and an “escabeche “salad. How was it? Delicious! I was very happy to be having it. The tacos were delicious and the salad was so good, so fresh and lively, that I could have it with lunch every day. In fact, there was so much of even my “skinnylicious” lunch that I took part of it home for later.

On the way out, we noticed a bar, small and curving, with gleaming mahogany surfaces and stands of glassware and handsome bottles in ranks, and a couple sitting at the bar, having lunch and a glass of wine and chatting happily with the bartender. A pleasant bit of urban sophistication, an echo of similar scenes taking place in independent bars and wine bars and lounges all over the land, and a handsome feature I’m pretty sure The Cheesecake Factory did not offer five years ago.

Also, for the record, this isn’t the first time we’ve eaten at The Cheesecake Factory, simply the most recent time. And it won’t be the last.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Barbara Fazio June 1, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Amazingly, my husband and I shared a gift certificate, given by a friend, for lunch at the Cheesecake Factory last week. We’d ignored the place since it’s crazy opening several years ago. We were so surprised by great luncheon salads and tasty flat breads. We’ll be going back soon. Very amazed at how far they’ve come in several years. The salads, luncheon size, were really superior at a very reasonable price! We should have split a flat bread, and had individual salads.

Dani H June 2, 2014 at 12:27 am

I’ve never been to a Cheesecake Factory, though I have heard good things about it from relatives. Thanks for the background information on how they update their menu and for the recommendation, Terry!

John@Kitchen Riffs June 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

I’ve never been to a Cheesecake Factory (probably because they all seem to be at malls, and our motto is if we can’t get it mail order, we probably don’t need it anyway — we’re not shoppers). But my impression was they were doing some interesting things, and I’m glad to have it confirmed. Great info — thanks.

Anita June 2, 2014 at 2:46 pm

I was a bit of a snob (heck, a pretty big snob) when it came to Cheesecake Factory – “everyone knows” that if a place has a humungous menu, nothing good can come of it. Then I wound up at one during a conference far away from home – time pressure, it was right across the street, etc. And I got a low-cal meal that was really delicious (roasted beets were involved) and served to me very efficiently. Have gone a few times since and been pleased. And now this? Thanks!

Marion June 2, 2014 at 10:50 pm

Thanks, all!

randi June 3, 2014 at 11:33 am

Many Torontonians like to go to New York for shopping bargains.
A co-worker of mine very happily will drive his wife and relatives to the outlet malls because there is a Cheesecake Factory nearby. I swear it’s all he can think about, I had no idea they made “real food” there so I now understand his craving. Next time I will not drive by looking for something better. Thank you!

Marion June 3, 2014 at 10:54 pm

randi, you are always welcome. And I can totally see how that would work – you get to be a fine fellow AND you get a good meal.

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