Is The Cheesecake Factory Gross?

project_cheesecake_factory_bayshore_photo_7

By Ezra Klein

A week or so ago, the food writer Michael Ruhlman mocked Kelly Alexander for praising The Cheesecake Factory on NPR. In response, Alexander laid down a wager: Ruhlman had to go to The Cheesecake Factory, order the miso salmon that so impressed Alexander, and try it. If Ruhlman could honestly say “it doesn’t rock,” Alexander would purchase 15 copies of his new book.

Ruhlman lost.

Not only did the miso salmon rock, but so too did the crispy beef. The spaghetti carbonara and chicken piccata Ruhlman’s party ordered were also pretty good. And of course they were. The Cheesecake Factory isn’t accidentally popular. They spend millions each year on food research. They have access to a tremendous quantity of data on consumer preferences. They have the money to test new products and experiment with new dishes and refine their flavors. They have central processing plants where food is par fried and broken down with sugar and salt injections. People should read David Kessler’s The End of Overeating to get an idea of the resources that go into creating the flavors for chain dishes. They’re not screwing around.

Foodies have an unfortunate tendency to alight on a Unified Field Theory of Corporate Food: It’s bad for the environment and bad for workers and bad for animals and bad for waistlines and, above all that, a fraud, because it also tastes bad. This would be convenient, if true. If people weren’t actually enjoying what they were eating, then getting them to change their eating habits would be pretty easy. But it’s not true, of course. They keep going back to the Cheesecake Factory because, well, they like it.

Which is not to say they’re operating off of perfect information. The Cheesecake Factory is notoriously tight-lipped about their nutritional information. Unlike most chains, their Web site doesn’t offer the data. But in Washington State, calorie disclosure laws force chains to make that information accessible on request. One resident scanned in the information and sent it to Calorie Lab. Which gives us some insight into what’s going on here.

If I had gone to the Cheesecake Factory with the intention of ordering relatively healthfully, it’s pretty likely that the miso salmon would have ended up on my plate. A heart-healthy fish with a soy-based glaze? What could be better?

A lot, as it turns out. On first glance, I would have figure the salmon for the lightest entree, followed by the chicken piccata, the carbonara, and the crispy beef. Not so. The salmon weighs in at 1,673 calories — which is to say, a bit more than 75 percent of the food an adult male should eat in a day. The piccata is a comparably slim 1,385 calories. The crispy beef is 1,528 calories. And the carbonara? 2,191. The answer might be that someone looking for a healthful meal shouldn’t go to the Cheesecake Factory. But insofar as you’re already there, or your family wants to go there, making a good decision isn’t a particularly straightforward proposition.

This is why the obesity crisis is such a tough issue: Calories are delicious. The Cheesecake Factory isn’t doing anything wrong, either ethically or culinarily. Human beings are wired to prefer abundance, salt, fat, sugar, and value. The Cheesecake Factory is giving people the whole package. Changing people’s eating habits so that type two diabetes don’t become the new chubby would be easy if the food was actually repulsive or the value was bad or it was all, in some other way, a trick. But it’s not. The food is enjoyable. The value is incredible. The cost is long-term, and remembering that we might get diabetes down the road is pretty hard when eons of evolutionary wiring are telling us to eat this stuff now now now now it’s right here now now!

People go to the Cheesecake Factory because they like being there, not because they’re being deceived. The only catch is that they really don’t know how bad the food is for them. Study after study shows we wildly underestimate caloric load of our foods, and we underestimate by more as the meal becomes larger. It’s not clear that nutritional information on menus would actually change eating habits. But it would at least give people a place to start. Diners know what they like. They know how much money they’ll have to pay to purchase it. No reason they shouldn’t also know what it’s going to cost their waistline.

30 responses to “Is The Cheesecake Factory Gross?

  1. Nicholas Warino

    Jesus…I assumed the Cheesecake Factory was bad, but I didn’t realize how bad. So the average dish there is in the 1500-2000 calorie range? Add on appetizers and desert…3500 calories? Yikes. No wonder it is so delicious.

    I’m glad I only go there to celebrate. I last went there for graduation a couple years ago and I think I got: Louisiana Chicken Pasta (2,052 calories), spinach-artichoke appetizer (1031 calories/2=516 calories) , and for desert I got Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple Cheesecake (1,326). That’s a grand total of 3894 calories. BUT, I had Diet Coke to drink!

  2. It’s not just that they’re using caloric ingredients, it’s that the portions are so completely enormous. Like, truly truly gargantuan, to the point where I don’t see how anyone could finish a whole entree, let alone a meal with appetizers and dessert. I don’t care how engineered the flavors are to appeal to our inner wiring, portions like that make the whole experience grotesque.

    A guy brought me there on a bad date once, and I will never return again.

  3. I’d support a combination Health and Fairness index for chain restaurants.
    I want them to tell me how much the people who pick and process the raw ingredients for their dishes are getting paid. Where that can’t be divined, I’d pay more for a meal that came with a Health and Fairness certification.
    IMO the healthfulness and workplace fairness of commercially prepared food are deeply connected and a lot of us “foodies” would pay more for a meal where we knew what we were paying for, in terms of calories AND salaries.

  4. I personally do think the Cheesecake Factory is gross. I’ve been there once–never again. I abhor multi-page menus and the portion sizes are grotesque.

    However, in any restaurant I would love to know the caloric cost of my meals. That would make a big difference in my choices. Ruby Tuesday’s puts the calories on their menus and it affects what I order. If I have to go to a fast food restaurant, I have preset meals I always order because I know how many calories I’m getting.

    More information is a good thing for consumers.

  5. People go to the CheeseCake Factory because its safe, consistent, and everyone can find something they like – even notoriously picky Uncle Joe.

    And I am not sure what people mean when they say a restaurant is gross. I’m sure many people who go to the CheeseCake Factory would say buying a hotdog or a taco from a street vendor would be gross.

  6. Joshua Lyle

    Are we talking about the same chain? I’ve been to the Cheesecake Factory in St. Louis a couple of times, sampling 3-4 items each trip, and never had anything better than mediocre, although perhaps the local staff were to blame rather than the food researchers.

  7. Like any chain of restaurants, there will be restaurants that do a better job and restaurants that do a lousy job of preparing the partially prepared food. I’ve walked into upscale national chain restaurants in one city and been totally amazed and walked into the same chain in another city and been seriously underwhelmed.

    While chains try to provide the same experience to the customer every time they visit (regardless of where they visit), there is usually some variation in the quality of the food. This is caused by the people factor.

    Likewise when looking at calorie counts, they can only give you a ballpark of what you are getting. The size of that ballpark can be enormous. ABCNews did a study (http://a.abcnews.com/GMA/Consumer/Story?id=5492879&page=1) of how accurate the calorie counts of a chain’s smoothies were. The results were all over the board; one sample had nearly three times the number of calories it would have had if the recipe had been followed. Human error (if the companies are to be believed) caused the differences.

  8. Love this post, but must nitpick your estimation of adult caloric requirements:

    “The salmon weighs in at 1,673 calories — which is to say, a bit more than 75 percent of the food an adult male should eat in a day.”

    2000 is recommended for the average woman and inactive or particularly short men and 2500 is recommended for the average man and especially active or tall women (see http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdweight.html).

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  10. counting calories can lead to some very poor, imbalanced eating habits sometimes. particularly with young women, who will eat one piece of cheesecake, and starve for two days.
    i have often been with calorie-obsessed people, who will do that regularly, and drive themselves to hunger and failure on their diets.
    i dont care about the calories in the food i eat. i care about having the ingredients listed in prepared foods, when i eat them, so that i know exactly what i am eating.
    i do not want anything i eat to receive sugar or salt injections or to look like a work of art because there are mysterious additives that strive to look like “naturally” beautiful food, when in fact, it is an aggregate of mysterious ingredients.
    if i am going to eat red strawberries, i dont want them to have a ruby color because they took a bath in food coloring and heaven knows what else.:-(
    i much prefer going to “whole foods market,” where are small signs in front of every item with a complete list of ingredients. on the occasions when i go out to eat, i can enjoy a vegetarian’s paradise there. i can wisely select what i want, with the full knowledge of what it is i am actually eating.

    two winners at whole foods market:
    red cabbage salad
    emerald kale salad (with tasty bits of ginger)

  11. and who knows what these chains dress your salad with? what exactly goes into their ranch dressing, or blue cheese dressing?
    who wants to eat anything if they dont know what is in it?
    a strawberry is a strawberry, but who knows what you would be getting in a chain restaurant, when you order strawberry shortcake?
    what is in the cake?
    what is in the supposed whipped cream?
    what is in the strawberry puree?
    it is anybody’s guess.

    no thank you.

  12. And I hate how chain restaurants, including Cheesecake Factory, call something carbonara, and then go on to tell you it’s a parmesan cream sauce with peas.

    Carbonara is NOT parmesan cream sauce. In fact, neither of those ingredients is in carbonara.

    Eggs, pecorino, guanciale (ok, maybe you can use pancetta in a pinch), and black pepper. No cream. Raw eggs. And no nasty frozen peas. Gross.

    I don’t blame consumers for not wanting to eat raw eggs stirred into their pasta to get it creamy (though I love it), but just stop calling it carbonara. Please.

  13. Oops. Forgot the point. That 2200 calories is gross. 2200 calories for a lie of a dish is gross.

    Therefore, the Cheesecake Factory is gross.

  14. Apart from the salmon, the food in Ruhl’s video looked pretty gross. No dish will look great on video in that light, but still.

    The aesthetics of the Cheesecake Factory make me cringe, starting with the name. Who wants to eat at a factory? Clearly it’s a way of suggesting bulk portions at cut-rate prices. That’s fine. Like Burger Barn, or Steamroller Burritos.

    But it’s grating when they add all that gaudy pseudo-European decor to convince people that they’re getting a “fancy” restaurant experience.

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  17. If you’re going to compare Cheesecake Factory calorie counts to other restaurants’, you might also want to consider whether most people at Cheesesteak “take some home” instead of eating the whole portion at the restaurant. I think that’s some of the appeal. (Not that I’ve ever had any particular desire to go there.)

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  21. “Foodies” (hate the word) don’t hate Cheesecake factory because it’s gross. It’s because it’s expensive for what it is, particularly when other restaurants are doing the same dishes much better, for the same price or maybe a few bucks more. It just represents the lack of curiosity and standards Americans have when it comes to food. Yes, there are other places doing a worse job, but mediocrity is not something to strive for. And at $15 a portion for carbonara (depending on the location), I’ll got to Otto in NYC or SPQR in San Francisco for an authentic version, without peas or bacon or cream (thank you Stephanie for calling that out) for a slightly smaller but perfectly respectable portion for $9/$11. That’s all these “foodies” are pissed about. And when Ruhlman was saying the salmon was bad, I’m pretty sure he meant he could get a better version somewhere else.

    Look. I love Popeyes chicken. It’s better than almost any other fried chicken I’ve had, even in the South. And it’s a chain. This isn’t an anti-corporation thing. It’s that these corporations generally make mediocre food, for mediocre people.

    As for the calories? Look, carbonara is bad for you, no matter how you make it. Do what the Italians do, and eat a smaller portion. It’s not that complicated.

  22. I consider myself a foodie, and I like Cheesecake Factory. I don’t love it, but I look forward to going there. And for me, I know the calories are immense; that’s why I practice portion control. I never eat an entire main dish, and will share dessert if I get it.

    It’s not specific to CF – it’s endemic in the restaurant industry. We’re each responsible for our own eating habits.

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  24. The only reason I go to the Cheesecake Factory is get a slice of its name sake. I don’t care for the other stuff they serve.

  25. I wish I could say I thought junk food, processed food, and fatty foods are gross. Nope. I love all of it, and that “bliss point” theory made all kinds of sense. (“Just eat a smaller portion”?? Seriously? Rock on if you can do that; I cannot, so I find it’s best not to even start.) And I REALLY wish restaurants would tell us what the hell we’re eating. I try to eat well and can dodge the more obvious usual suspects (cream sauces, fried anything, etc.) but would likely have been fooled by the miso salmon too. It’s not so much the calories I care about, but the whole nutritional picture–what are you using to make my food and what am I actually putting into my body?

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  30. HAIR IN FOOD!! STAY FAR AWAY FROM THIS PLACE

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