The Cheesecake Factory: Feeding the 'Common Man'

Inside the strategy of one of America's most-loved restaurant chains.

ByABC News
August 5, 2011, 5:10 PM

Aug. 31, 2011 — -- Walk into one of David Overton's 153 restaurants and chances are you'll end up ordering something that's been "cheesecake-ized." That is, a dish that represents a twist on a classic flavor served to you in a portion size that's large -- very large.

"It's what America wants to eat," Overton said.

Overton, 65, is the founder and chief executive of the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain, based in Calabasas, Calif. It's one of the most profitable restaurant chains in America with annual sales of $1.6 billion, thanks to menu items ranging from the eponymous cheesecake to pasta carbonara to chicken tortillas to miso-glazed salmon. The latter dish was inspired by the miso-glazed cod served at an icon of haute cuisine, the Japanese restaurant Nobu.

"We have a lighter miso and we don't marinate it quite as long and we use salmon," Overton said. "That's a perfect example of what we do."

In a country enamored with big-box discount stores, the Cheesecake Factory's appeal is easy to swallow. Its eclectic menu, large serving sizes and low prices make it the dining equivalent of Walmart.

Its beginnings, meanwhile, are a classic American underdog tale. When his parents were in their 50s and down on their luck in Detroit, Overton convinced them to move to California and start selling his mother's popular cheesecakes, which she began making years earlier after clipping a recipe in a local newspaper.

"My father got in the car, cold-called, going from restaurant to restaurant to restaurant, to try to sell their cheesecake. And I started to help them," Overton said.

When they opened their first restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1978, he remembered, "we were full [of customers] in 10 minutes."

But as much as some love the Cheesecake Factory, others love to hate it. At this year's "Extreme Food Awards," honoring the biggest belt-busters, the Cheesecake Factory was the only restaurant to take home two prizes: one for its Farmhouse Burger, which comes topped with bacon, mayo and a fried egg, and the other for its red velvet cheesecake.

The judges declared that eating the Farmhouse Burger was as bad for your health as downing three McDonald's Quarter Pounders, while consuming one slice of the cheesecake "is like eating one Pizza Hut Personal Pan Pepperoni Pizza plus two Quarter Pounders with cheese … except the cake has an additional day's worth of saturated fat."

"That absolutely is a heart attack on a plate," said Michael Jacobsen, Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Overton is unapologetic.

"When people eat at home, they want to eat low cal, but when they go out to dine, they really want every calorie they're paying for," he said. "Because it's celebratory, they're here, they want to have a good time."

But the Cheesecake Factory hasn't glazed over healthy eating. The chain has a "Weight Management" menu with items of less than 300 calories and, just recently, it announced plans for a new "Skinnylicious" menu boasting 40 items for consumers watching their waistlines.

USA Today called it "the cosmic equivalent of Chuck E Cheese adding a quiet zone."

Overton knows what the critics say and he doesn't seem to mind.

"We think what we like is what people like," he said. "I was watching Oprah's last show, and on the show she said that she did every show as if she was the audience, and that's one of the things that we're successful for."

Overton says he's the Cheesecake Factory's only taster.

"We have no focus groups," he said. "We have no panels of people. I taste everything the chefs come up with, and if I like it, I put it on the menu," he said. "I think I am the taste of the common man."