Cheesecake Factory opened the first of its new downsized restaurants this month, a departure from the pricey cathedrals that’ve been a hallmark of the concept since its earliest days. Now it has a smaller, less-expensive prototype, just like everyone else in casual dining.
That concession to the times follows the addition of a menu section consisting solely of bargains, an asterisk to the chain’s positioning as a place of indulgence, as its luscious cakes or huge portions attest. Now deal hunters will find the same sort of values they might seek on other Friday or Saturday nights at Red Lobster, McCormick & Schmick’s, Outback or Mortons.
Point by point, the once high-flying chain is addressing the issues that have tempered its phenomenal financial success. But, in the process, is it engineering its way into one of casual dining’s biggest problems? Is it sacrificing dramatic points of differentiation to become like everyone else in the pack?
If I’m typical of Cheesecake’s fan base, patrons go there because the experience is over-the-top, from the 200-item menu to the portions, the unusual choices (Navajo Sandwich, anyone?) and the dramatic settings (insider’s note: Look for a sky scene in your local unit, a concession to the religious orientation of longtime leader David Overton). It’s not an overstatement to say it provides a sense of awe.
But awe doesn’t sell in this tight-walleted environment. Bargains, economy and accessibility are today’s stock in trade. Still, by curbing what’s been in its DNA to embrace those head-turning qualities, is Cheesecake thinking merely for the short term? Certainly this economic situation is a crisis, and hence by definition a passing pain.
I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy for me to second guess one of the industry’s most successful executive teams. I don’t have investors, executives, landlords and employees looking to me to pull the concept out of the doldrums.
But I hope Cheesecake doesn’t sacrifice the counter-intuitiveness that made that brand a stellar success. When everyone was going for streamlined menus, it maintained a tome of fare. When nods to healthfulness were the order of the day, it continued to serve selections that could have fed whole Caribbean islands. When competitors shotgunned units into the market like space invaders focusing on street corners and malls, it grew slowly and with painstaking selection of sites (to the best of my recollection, it’s never had to close a restaurant).
It needs to think in evolutionary terms—how to tailor the brand to the times. Merely co-opting what’s worked for other casual-dining concepts is de-evolution of the worst kind. I hope the folks in Calabasas Hills are careful about how they navigate these perilous times. Otherwise, they’ll just be jumping the shark.