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.