“Why are there so many people here?” is a question I often ask myself when I walk into a Cheesecake Factory. This popular chain restaurant brings in a substantial number of customers everyday around the country. What is it about this restaurant that attracts so many people? I had to find out. From my experience at the Cheesecake Factory in Providence Rhode Island, I can see why this establishment is so beloved. With their huge portions, attraction to the middle class, and abundance of choice, the Cheesecake Factory restaurant represents what American cuisine is all about.
As I sat in my seat, I was handed a menu that would more aptly be described as a binder jam-packed with endless options for my meal. The food is presented in fourteen sections which include: appetizers, small plates (which, yes, are different than appetizers), salads, “super-foods”, pizza, lunch specials, Glamburgers and sandwiches, skinnylicious, Sunday brunch, beverages, pasta, seafood, specialties, and deserts. You might be out of breath by simply reading this list; I know I was. It took me about ten minutes to read through the entire menu. I wanted to experience a large section of this expansive menu, so I ordered off of the sections for small plates, salads, pasta, and, of course, desert. The journey began with an item off the “small plates” section: a dish named “Roadside Sliders”. Ironically, this plate was not small at all, and although they were sliders – small burgers – the plate included four of them. Arguably, the sliders altogether had more meat than a single burger alone. These juicy burgers were complimented with a buttery bun and the perfect amount of ketchup and mustard to accompany the meat. Once I accepted the pure size of my so-called small plate, I thoroughly enjoyed my mini burgers and would rate them highly, even compared to establishments that focus on serving burgers alone. Along with the burgers, I ordered a side of fries. Personally, I think it is a sin to not order fries with a burger, and I also think that the way fries are cooked is a true testament to the quality of a restaurant. It is safe to say that the Cheesecake Factory did not disappoint. The fries captured the qualities all good fries should contain, crispy to the touch yet melting into my mouth. Safe to say, the first course of my meal was very pleasing. Next, I ordered a small Caesar salad. Again, the salad was not small, but instead came on a plate larger than the one my four sliders came on. Size aside, I was pleasantly surprised by the authenticity of the salad. Traditional flavors of anchovies and parmesan accompanied the creamy dressing beautifully, and I am embarrassed to say the salad was consumed before the main course arrived. The main course was a Chicken Fettuccini Alfredo pasta dish. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this particular dish as much as I did the sliders and the salad. I thought the noodles were cut too thick, which resulted in a potato-like consistency. However, the alfredo sauce was well spiced and creamy, and the chicken was flavorful. Finally, for the grand finale, I ordered the 30th Anniversary Chocolate Cheesecake. I picked this one for two reasons: the first being my love for chocolate, and the second being this cake’s incorporation of both cheesecake and regular cake. The result was absolutely delicious. Covered with a thick chocolate icing and layered with original cheesecake and their traditional chocolate cake, each bite brought me crawling back for more. I can honestly affirm that their product lives up to their namesake. Their cheesecake was mouthwatering.
The vast menu, delicious items, and sinful deserts are only part of the story of my experience of going to the Cheesecake Factory. In addition to the meal, the environment, staff, and customers each affected my experience at the restaurant. First, let me describe the environment. When you walk into the restaurant, through these huge glass doors, the mood is set by the low lighting, waitresses dressed in black and white uniforms, large fancy bar, and décor that, although rather beautiful, is hard to determine exactly what culture it is influenced by. To me, it felt almost Egyptian, due to the clay colored walls and hieroglyphics designs. The overall feel of the restaurant matches what one might find at a high-end restaurant, defiantly not something you would think would be attached to most malls in America. In addition, there are people everywhere. I visited the Cheesecake Factory on a Wednesday night around 7:30 pm, and still had to wait around an hour for a table. The bar and seating area were covered with patrons and families waiting to get seated, snacking on appetizers and watching children run around. This is no rare occasion; the Cheesecake Factory experiences a high volume of people visiting their establishment every day.[i]
I want to argue that the Cheesecake Factory is a good representation of American food because of three main characteristics: portion size, appeal to the middle class, and the concept of choice. The restaurant’s decision to have overly zealous portion sizes is interesting because, based on my observations, many people (including myself) take home leftovers. In addition, you would think larger portions have a significant effect on their overall costs. What reasons could restaurants have to want to make their portion sizes bigger? Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim tackled this question through an experiment of popcorn. They discovered that the participants who were given a larger popcorn box ate more popcorn than those given a smaller bag even when participants said they preferred the popcorn from the smaller bag. They concluded that intake has to do not only with just taste alone, but also with the environment in which the food is presented. They argue that,
“People tend to believe that how much they eat is largely based on the taste of food, and research in physiology and sensory studies often reports positive correlations between food palatability and consumption. Interestingly, this correlation has been shown only in the absence of competing environmental influences. On a day-to-day basis, a wide range of competing environmental influences-such as serving sizes, distractions, and the presence of others-may increase food intake independent of its palatability. As a result, the taste or quality of a food-within a reasonable range-might have less to do with how much we eat than the environmental factors around us.”[ii]
These findings are important when describing the Cheesecake Factory because their environment is a huge factor in the success of their restaurant and is conducive to what I believe American ideals are. Americans see a meal as an experience, assessing its quality by who they spend it with, what surrounds them, and how full their stomachs are when they leave. By presenting the food in large portion sizes, surrounded by beautiful décor and a family-friendly atmosphere, the Cheesecake Factory creates an American experience that fosters a good time. For instance, I did not enjoy the main course of my meal, but I still got to spend time with my boyfriend in an elegant setting and went home satisfied. It was less about what we ate, but that we got to eat together – sharing each oversized dish and excited for the next one to come.
The Cheesecake Factory, through its accessible location and popular food trends, appeals to the middle class. The chain establishment is often found near or inside of malls, attracting those with expendable income. Interestingly, American nutrition is biased towards the middle class. Charlotte Biltekoff discusses the history of the American diet and argues that “dietary and social ideals reflect the values of middle-class reformers who express and advocate them.”[iii] The Cheesecake Factory uses these ideas to their advantages not only by being located in areas that attract middle-class consumers, but also by playing to popular food trends they believe in. Using Biltekoff’s argument, the middle class has immense influence on what is American food is. For example, the addition of the “superfood” and skinnylicious menu sections engages the growing middle-class American movements that advocate for a dietary change, and makes a statement on what is considered healthy. These items are either reduced calories, foods that contain specific beneficial chemicals, or low saturated fat, such as avocado, antioxidants, and kale. These types of foods are trendy, found on various social media sites, and believed to be healthier for us, which all contribute to their expanding popularity with the middle-class. Therefore, The Cheesecake Factory has adopted these trendy items in hopes of attracting the clientele that influence the American diet.
This leaves me with my last point on why the Cheesecake Factory represents American food: the menu has an abundance of choice. When looking at the Cheesecake Factory menu, it might be hard to guess what type of food they are selling. With menu items such as the Roadside Sliders, Thai Coconut-Lime Chicken, and Jamaican Black Pepper Shrimp, consumers can certainly find any food type they are craving. It is this combination of food types that labels this establishment as American food. American food has adopted countless cultures and nationalities, creating a melting pot of flavors to choose from. The Cheesecake Factory puts a twist on many traditional recipes, leaving their customers with a true representation of American food. Their vast menu can accommodate large groups of people who all want a different dish and experience. For example, my own experience gave me a chance to taste burgers, salad, and pasta; a combination hard to find at other establishments. The restaurant takes the American ideal of freedom and applies it to their menu.
Overall, I enjoyed my experience at the Cheesecake Factory and would recommend it to my friends and family. It is a combination of the menu, environment, and good quality food that can attract a large clientele to this establishment. If I were to go back, I would like to explore other aspects of their vast menu for my meal, but I would absolutely stick to ordering any of their cheesecakes for desert. It is clear through my experience and observations that the Cheesecake Factory is definitely a restaurant I will visit again.
Image Credit: Anthony92931, “Cheesecake Factory Restaurant,” https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cheesecake_Factory_Restaurant.jpg
[i] Statista.com, “Number of people who visited The Cheesecake Factory within the last 30 days in the United States from spring 2011 to spring 2017 (in millions), September 2017
[ii] Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim, “Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste,” Ournal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 37, no. 5 (September 2005): 242–45.
[iii] Charlotte Biltekoff, “Critical Nutrition Studies,” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2012, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199729937.013.0010.