The Arabian Desert may not be the first place you’d imagine ordering a Bang Bang Chicken and Shrimp, Avocado Eggrolls, or anything else on the menu at The Cheesecake Factory.
But the mecca of American mall dining opens in Dubai today, with the first of 22 planned Middle East locations. It’s partnering with the Kuwaiti firm Alshaya, which licenses and operates many leading U.S. brands there, including Shake Shack, Starbucks, and Dean & Deluca. The Mall of the Emirates location (which will open after the Dubai Mall outpost) will sit at the base of the trippy indoor ski slope, of which every table will have a view.
People may not instinctively put the high-end casual chain in the same innovative category as Google or Facebook. But Cheesecake Factory’s hyper-efficient operation churns out massive volumes of made-from-scratch dishes at relatively low cost and with hardly any waste. The New Yorker recently lauded the company as the unlikely model of innovation for the wasteful and expensive healthcare industry (it’s ok, read that again). It employs nearly 10 times as many people as Facebook, and its 158 U.S. restaurants have the highest sales volumes in the industry, averaging about $10 million per location. If success were measured in avocados, Cheesecake Factory is a major player–its restaurants rip through 3.1 million pounds a year.
Founder and CEO David Overton, who opened the first restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1978 to support his parents’ wholesale cheesecake business, recently spoke with Fast Company about how he stumbled onto a winning concept, how he continues to push innovation, and why the Middle East is the perfect place for what he calls “food Americans want to eat.”
FAST COMPANY: The Middle East doesn’t seem like the most obvious place to begin an international expansion. Why there?
DAVID OVERTON: I think the Middle East, when you really look at it, is easier than going to Asia or Mexico or Canada, all of which we are looking at, too. Everyone is on an even playing field because everything is brought in–about the only thing they really have there are dates. Whether you’re an American or European concept, you’re flying it in and paying the same money. That is an advantage.
When you go over there, you see how beautiful the malls are. And almost all life revolves around malls. It’s too hot, so people spend a lot of time in malls–they have a coffee, they shop, they watch their kid go bowling, go to a movie, come back and have dinner, and have another coffee later. They’re there until 11 at night. It’s almost all their social life. We thought that was great.
What changes to the brand have you made to appeal to a Middle Eastern clientele?
Alshaya, our Middle East partners, are great replicators, not creators. They wanted the menu to be exactly the same. They said don’t take anything out or make anything special for us–other than alcohol and pork. There’s no way out of that.
The Mall of Dubai, which is tremendous–3.5 million square feet—does quarterly surveys and one question they asked is, “What American restaurant concepts would you like us to bring here?” For the last 5 years, it’s been Cheesecake Factory. We thought if we’re ever going to go international, this is probably where to go.
You are very hands-on in developing all aspects of The Cheesecake Factory, yet you don’t have a background as a chef or do any consumer research. How do you get inspiration for your menus and new ideas?
When I opened the restaurant I found I had talent in being able to go into other restaurants and reinterpreting dishes. Even though I might be at Spago eating an incredible Wolfgang Puck dish, instead of veal we’ll do it with chicken. What I like, almost everybody likes. I’m not a gourmet, a chef, or a critic. I just like good food and Middle America likes that kind of cooking.
Chicken dijon was the first dish I reinterpreted, and I kept on doing that, which made the menu too big–but at the beginning, I didn’t realize we’d be a chain.
The menu is amazingly big. It’s like a book.
The menu is even bigger today because we added 52 items under 590 calories on our Skinnylicious menu. I felt the time was right for a lower-calorie menu, and instead of putting three or four items on, I decided we would do it Cheesecake style and make it a full menu, to really give people a choice. And we felt we weren’t sacrificing any flavor. If there was anything I had to really reduce the flavor of, I didn’t put it on.
We’re known for the big portions and being fattening and everyone could point to us for that, but now they can’t.
Is that bringing in new clientele, or are people who are already eating there shifting their choices?
Definitely the older people are coming in more often—they say “I came here once a month for a treat but now I can come in once a week because I can eat lighter.”
What’s your favorite thing on the Skinnylicious menu?
I rarely eat on the Skinnylicious menu. My favorite dishes are sliders. As a manager you get used to eating on the run.
Have you ever had a flop?
Yes, we’ve had items that we put on that were good but didn’t sell. It’s one thing when you have 12 items on your menu–everything has a chance. But when you have 200, they have to claw their way to the top.
What’s the top seller?
Avocado Eggrolls are our number one or two seller. Coming up with a dish like that that gets so popular is like Ford creating the Mustang. It’s so important to have real signature items that people love and that take a few years for other restaurants to master. The whole menu is our competitive advantage. It is almost impossible to do and it’s taken us years to perfect our system. It’s our greatest defense against competition.
How does your kitchen function when it’s making everything on a huge menu from scratch, without doing things like shipping out huge vats of guacamole?
It’s a lot of training. We probably have more training than any other casual dining restaurant out there–even for a server it’s two weeks.
Part of the secret is we can keep the food fresh because we’re so busy. It’s harder to run a restaurant that’s not busy than one that is, mostly because of keeping the food fresh.
How did you decide on the everything-from-scratch approach?
Because I was so naïve. I didn’t know how to work steam tables, any chef tricks, how to keep things half cooked and finish them quickly. I did everything to order fresh, and no one was doing that. It was one of the big reasons Cheesecake Factory was successful.
I read about how you had lines around the block the first day. What did you do to create that buzz?
It was a miracle. We didn’t do anything. We were supposed to open at 11:30 but I knew we weren’t really ready, so I put a cardboard sign on the door saying we’d open at 2. We were full and had a wait within 10 minutes of opening. And it hasn’t stopped since.
Follow Fast Company senior editor Erin Schulte–whose last dish at The Cheesecake Factory was Vietnamese tacos– @erin719nyc.