Lisa McDowell: The Cheesecake Factory is contagious!

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Lisa McDowell, Senior Vice-President of Global Development at The Cheesecake Factory, talks to BelleBeirut about the American restaurant’s history and expansion as a brand around the world.

1- How would you introduce The Cheesecake Factory to the Lebanese people?

I would tell you it is contagious; I would tell you it is iconic. As a result, what comes with it is word of mouth: If you don’t know about us, you will definitely hear about our food through a friend or someone who dined at The Cheesecake Factory.

Because when you come in and dine here, you feel the energy and the warmth of the staff; you also experience the amazing ambiance, the lighting, the design of the place. So that one person, who walks through this door and goes through this experience, will definitely talk about it to his/her friends/family.

The Cheesecake Factory has always been about word of mouth, we don’t do advertising. We are built upon each guest coming through this door, every time having the same experience they would have anywhere else in the world. The food, the flavors, the hospitality, the dining experience; all those things are really where everything starts for us. Our success is truly based on existing guests coming back… it is, as I said, contagious!

Delicious appetizers.
Delicious appetizers.
2- What sets The Cheesecake Factory’s cuisine apart from other American restaurants?

It’s the variety in which we offer… we have a little something for everyone. So say if you come to The Cheesecake Factory with 6 of your friends, somebody could have pasta, somebody could have a salad, somebody could have a steak, and I could have a burger! There is no other restaurant company in the world that offers the extensive menu that we have.

We have over 200 menu items on our main menu, and over 50 different “Skinnylicious” items. Those are items that are similar to the items on our menu but with a lower calorie count. They are intended for people on a diet, or who want to stay fit. We want to appeal to absolutely everyone. In fact, if you come in one day and say “I’m on a special diet, I can’t have any sauce, and I can’t have any sugar…” we would guide you to something that meets your needs, and we would make it for you even if it is not on the menu.

At The Cheesecake Factory, our large portions have an added value in the sense that they give you two options: you could share your meal with someone or you can have it packed and take it back home with you.

Delicious food.
Delicious food.
3- What has changed at The Cheesecake factory since Mrs. Evelyn Overton first decided to start a business with her delicious Cheesecakes from her own basement?

This company has always been about details, it is like technology. The Cheesecake Factory is ever-evolving, we change every day. We try to stay ahead of the curve, and try to anticipate what our guests’ needs are. We’re thinking about the future all the time. Whether it’s the technology we have at the restaurant to serve our guests in a quicker manner, to making sure we’re safety first and that our practices are up to standards. Everything from the music to the light levels is studied and constantly improved.

Also, the design of the restaurant has changed over the years, the decor is different. You can walk in to one Cheesecake Factory built five years ago and see something very different from a Cheesecake Factory built two years ago. Also, our menu changes every six months. In fact, in the United States we’re getting ready to launch Super Foods; which is made of what people are looking for nutrient wise.

To me, the founder of The Cheesecake Factory, David Overton, is a genius! He came up with out “Skinnylicious” menu, which was way ahead of its time. When you have that kind of attention to detail and innovation that no one else can replicate, you stand out. We give you something with lower calories and yet it’s still delicious.

The mouthwatering godiva chocolate cheesecake.
The mouthwatering godiva chocolate cheesecake.
4- The Cheesecake Factory’s first branch outside the US was in the United Arab Emirates in 2011, and you’re now opening in Lebanon… why did you choose to expand in the Middle-East and how is it going so far?

Our first location outside of the US was in the Dubai mall, which is currently one of our busiest locations in the world. Initially, we wanted to keep everything close to our vest. Being detail-oriented, we had a tough time handing our little baby (The Cheesecake Factory) to someone else. But when we met with the Al-Shaya Group, we were amazed by how well they work on franchises. They promised us to replicate exactly what we do in the United States. It was how we first stepped out and placed our foot in the water. We trust them, and we’re proud to offer the same experience we offer in the United States right here in the Middle-East. Through this experience, we’ve grown and this has helped us prepare to go into business with our other licensees in Latin America and in Shanghai Disney (Summer 2016).

A 200-item menu.
A 200-item menu.
5- Is there any particular expansion strategy you are adopting for The Cheesecake Factory?

We’re into growing the right way; we do not grow fast just to grow. We grow for the right reasons, in the right time, with the right talent. Lebanon is our last opening internationally for 2015. We plan on opening another restaurant in Mexico City and Qatar in 2016, Cairo and the UAE are also on schedule.

We’re very excited about being in Lebanon; this is a really hip place to live. Who is not going to see us when they drive by here? And we’re absolutely hoping to open another branch in Lebanon.

6- Food safety is a serious issue in Lebanon; what can you tell us about food safety at The Cheesecake factory?

We have our own in-house compliance team, which is only focused on food safety and sanitation. We’ve also hired a third-party to come in and assess us. The examination is random, our restaurants are not notified and they have a certain score they must abide by. We hold people accountable, so that’s why we teach-train our staff on everything they need to know about food safety before they become part of the team. We take it very seriously because it can be life or death for a guest. We are very strong at this, and we do not hesitate to hold people accountable when necessary.