Some of our most cherished people, places, and things are turning 40 this year: Garfield, Dallas, and Space Invaders among them. Joining these beloved pieces of Americana in celebrating 40 years on the planet is The Cheesecake Factory—that delicious ode to dairy-based desserts that you’ve likely eaten at with your parents. And if there’s one thing you remember about the experience, aside from the massive amount of cheesecake on display, it's the size of The Cheesecake Factory’s menu. And by size we mean both its physical size as well as its breadth of offerings.
The restaurant’s 21-page menu lists more than 250 made-from-scratch items (85 of them chicken dishes) and clocks in at a whopping 5940 words, which is roughly a third of the length of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Pulling a muscle to lift the menu wouldn’t be totally out of the question. And while cheesecake may be the main attraction, the food offerings span the globe for their culinary inspirations. Thai lettuce wraps sit right alongside stuffed tortillas, chicken and biscuits, and Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls. There’s pizza, too. And salads and sandwiches. And dozens of varieties of cheesecake.
"At first, we really just wanted a menu that lived around the cheesecakes," The Cheesecake Factory founder/chairman/CEO David Marshall Overton told Thrillist earlier this year. "I wasn't a chef, I had no experience in the restaurant business either, and I didn't want any chef we hired to walk out on me. So, I made sure that everything we served, was something I could make myself."
Overton soon realized he had a knack for cooking. As he began to experiment with new and more complex recipes, he added them to the menu and it kept growing. And growing. And growing.
"When I ate at other restaurants during this time, I was able to take some of the more complex recipes, more expensive dishes, and bring them down to casual dining," he told Thrillist. "I'd work on new menu items with a cook, behind the line. And as we kept expanding the menu, people kept responding positively.”
Overton’s marketing strategy was basically: the more dishes, the better. If a couple was headed out to dinner and one person was craving Italian while the other wanted Mexican, they could both happily satisfy their appetites at The Cheesecake Factory. But in those early days, The Cheesecake Factory was just a one-location operation in Beverly Hills, California.
"I probably should have kept the menu slimmer,” Overton admitted. "If I knew then what I know today … I had no idea we would become a chain, and would have to recreate this menu dozens of times. We put anything we wanted to on the menu. Every June and December we added new items. And we tried to stay current, adding any food items that happened to be trending at the time, and tried to keep pace with what America wanted."
When it came time to expand, it was too late to scale things back: the legendarily large menu was a main selling point for dining out at The Cheesecake Factory. And 40 years later, it still is.
In Talk Triggers: The Complete Guide to Creating Customers with Word of Mouth, a popular guide detailing how some of the world’s best-known brands have engendered customer loyalty, Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin wrote extensively about how important The Cheesecake Factory’s back-breaking menu is to its success:
"You might think [it’s] too long, but for The Cheesecake Factory, it's just right. Why? Because the vastness of the restaurant's menu is so unusual that it compels conversation among its patrons. Menu breadth is its secret customer-acquisition weapon—it hides in plain sight, in the hands of each and every diner. The menu at The Cheesecake Factory is a talk trigger: a built-in differentiator that creates customer conversations. Every day consumers comment on the remarkable menu variety with a combination of bewilderment, awe, and frustration."
Even if you’ve never eaten at The Cheesecake Factory, you’ve likely heard tell of its menu—and that’s precisely the point.
"The Cheesecake Factory doesn't have to buy awareness because its menu is remarkable enough to compel patrons to tell their friends, which in turn creates new customers,” Baer and Lemin wrote. "When you commit to a talk trigger like The Cheesecake Factory menu, that difference creates conversation that clones your customers, bringing you new revenue for free." Even if you do need to strength-train to lift it.