Founder David Overton says Cheesecake Factory has the most-copied menu in the casual dining industry. If he’s right, other restaurants better get ready to roll out their version of the chain’s new SkinnyLicious menu, which offers 50 low-cal-yet-full-flavored items. When the nation’s highest-grossing restaurant chain climbs on the low-calorie bandwagon, it probably makes sense to follow.
153-unit Cheesecake Factory has prospered by giving customers a big dining experience. The long waits for tables, the number of menu offerings, the over-the-top portion sizes, the calorie count of most meals (even for those who don’t order a slice of cheesecake for dessert)—everything’s outsized at this chain. So are revenues. Financially, Cheesecake Factory is a juggernaut, with average unit volumes chainwide approaching $10 million—which is why other operators so often follow its lead.
Get ready to offer more low-cal items if you’re one of them. Cheesecake Factory is in the midst of introducing a SkinnyLicious menu that encompasses 50 lower-calorie items. It’s a standalone menu handed to patrons along with the regular one as they are seated. Overton says lower calorie doesn’t mean reduced flavor. “We wanted to create a menu that delivers an exceptional dining experience to our calorie-conscious guests, without compromising the delicious taste that people have come to expect from the Cheesecake Factory,” he says.
The mini-menu offers a mix of new and existing items. Everything in the small plates/appetizers and flatbread categories clocks in under 490 calories, while entrée salads and main courses contain 590 calories or less. Five new “skinny” cocktails come in at or below the 150-calorie mark.
Non-skinny Cheesecake Factory items frequently top those lists of “Worst Foods in America” compiled by magazines and advocacy groups. So with mandatory nutritional labeling on menus on the horizon, is this a case of the chain getting ahead of the curve?
It could be, but Overton doesn’t necessarily see it that way. When stock analysts quizzed him about this issue during the company’s most recent quarterly earnings call, he had this to say:
“We have calorie counts in six or seven cities right now. And there has been really no change. Desserts have stayed strong. They (customers) haven’t even moved around the menu. So again, we feel when people go out to eat, it’s very celebratory and they’re eating the foods they enjoy. At home, they will eat more low-cal foods.
“Having said that, we really have some very low-calorie items on the menu already. And I think people who want to eat that food find it very easily at the Cheesecake Factory. So we’re not concerned about that. And if every area of the country would have the same rules about calorie counts, it would actually be easier for us.”
The SkinnyLicious menu should be available at every Cheesecake Factory unit by the middle of September. If you’re still wondering how your restaurant will structure its menu once the era of mandatory nutritional labeling on menus begins, you might want to take a look at how Cheesecake Factory has handled it here.