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Is The Cheesecake Factory Gross?

PH2009070901816.jpgA 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.

Totally adorable photo credit: Alex Wong -- Getty Images.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 13, 2009; 11:45 AM ET
Categories:  Food  
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ummmmm carrot cake (only 1,560 calories and 84 grams of fat per slice.)

I liked the "Cheesecake Feedlot" alternate name in the linked story.

I guess a visit there would be OK if that's all you ate for a whole day. Just imagine though, going there with folks from work for lunch, and then the spouse and kids dragging you there for a 'fun' dinner. Heart Attack Heaven also works as a name.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 13, 2009 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who would actively avoid going to a restaurant with full nutritional info right on the menu (as opposed to posted on a wall, where no one has to look at it). They don't want calorie calculation (and the accompanying guilt feelings) ruining the enjoyment of their meal. I'm sympathetic to this feeling, except that it sounds alot like "I don't want to have to think about how much this meal costs, so please don't print prices on the menu," which is clearly a poor decision-making process. Relatedly, I recently had my first meal at a restaurant in which the lady's menu doesn't list the prices, and found the selection process very disorienting, even though this used to be a much more common practice, considered essential for the enjoyment of the meal, at least on dates.

Posted by: polakl | July 13, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

Cheesecake factory isn't that great of a value - most entrees are like $15-$20 if I recall. McDouble is still the winner for calories to cost.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | July 13, 2009 12:45 PM | Report abuse

Drew: I think he's talking about quality of food vs cost, rather than calories vs cost. McDonalds might be more efficient, but cheesecake factory is much, much tastier.

In general, the complaints ezra cites are part of the reason I dislike foodie-ism. It's less about the food than whatever moral imperative the foodie thinks he has. If you're thinking about healthier eating, you should be thinking about how the food works first, instead of thinking about how everything is wrong and how it should all be torn down and replaced with tofu.

Or calling the american diet inherently wrong because it has a different composition than others countries'. That's really annoying too.

Posted by: Fnor | July 13, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I think what most people do is take half or more of it home, where it makes additional meals. I don't think it's really that difficult to figure out that a plate of food the size of carry-on luggage is going to be fattening.

Posted by: tomtildrum | July 13, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

tomtildrum hits the nail on the head. I'm 6-5 and 200, and I have never been known as a light eater. Yet when I go to a quick casual chain, or something more upscale in the Cheesecake Factory/Maggiano's vein, I rarely finish what I've ordered. Indeed, my wife an I have been known to order two appetizers to share (or one "sampler" app), and call it a night.

You can make the argument that portion sizes are out of control, but a big portion that you can take part of home for lunch tomorrow is part of the buyer's mental calculus for value.

tomtildrum and Ezra appear to pretty much be arguing in the same direction -- that caloric information ought to be made available, and let people decide for themselves from there on out.

Frankly, I think there's an untapped market for a quick-casual chain that wants to build its marketing entirely around healthy eating, the same way Volvo used to market its cars around safety in the pre-airbag, pre-traction-control, pre-antilock brake days.

Volvo had the safety-minded customers all to itself for nearly a generation before all the other carmakers realized that safety sells. When Lee Iacocca dictated that every Chrysler product should have an airbag, the game was up for Volvo.

Posted by: Rick00 | July 13, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Why eat it all? I don't understand people who feel compelled to clear their plate, no matter how much is put on it. If it looks rich (but delicious), just eat half. If you can't be bothered to bring the rest home, just leave it; presuming you don't eat out every night, your health (and, usually, comfort) is worth a little waste. Of course, restaurants with rich dishes should serve smaller portions too ... but in the meantime, the solution for the patron is simple.

Posted by: Ulium | July 13, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I've only been to the Cheesecake Factory once, years ago. I think yes, there is something gross about a chicken cutlet as big as your head, which is what my date ordered. And to me, taking food home is gross: it's fine if other people want to do it, but to me it's just a headache. So my answer is, yes, the CF is gross.

Posted by: csdiego | July 13, 2009 2:59 PM | Report abuse

The factory is ok if i could walk in and sit down and eat for $15. That's what it is worth. But people wait in line for hours! I'll wait 2 hours for komi or minibar, not for average food at the factory.

Posted by: popopo | July 13, 2009 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, I have to agree with popopo. I've only been to Cheesecake Factory a few times and I've loved everything I've had there, but most nights the line is out the door. Unless I'm with a big group and the choice is out of my hands, there's just about no food good enough for me to wait an hour to get a table.

Posted by: MosBen | July 13, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

*I don't understand people who feel compelled to clear their plate*

Because there are people starving in China/Cambodia/Ethiopia/North Korea, that's why!

*taking food home is gross*

In all seriousness: what are you talking about? Gross? How? Do you not want your fridge to be sullied with leftovers? Is this a complex about cleanliness/hygiene? I don't get it.

Posted by: constans | July 13, 2009 5:38 PM | Report abuse

quality*quantity/price = value?

actually, what I wanted to say is that in CA all chains have to post calories and a friend of mine just went to cheesecake factory and could not believe that the great majority of dishes had calorie counts over 1500 and many, many over 2000! that is just craziness.

Posted by: brandow | July 13, 2009 7:43 PM | Report abuse

i dont care about the calories.
what i find often happens when calories dictate a person's eating, is that they will have one piece of cheese cake, and then decide to eat nothing else for two days.
this is a real danger, especially with young women.
it becomes about balancing calories to eat something they like, and starving for the rest of the week.

what is more important to me, is knowing exactly what is in the food i am eating.
if i want to occasionally treat myself, i will go to "whole foods market," where they have small signs in front of each item, telling me exactly what is in their prepared foods.
it is a vegetarian's paradise.
and may i suggest their "emerald kale salad" as a real winner, and their "red cabbage salad."
it is far more important to me to know that the food i am eating didnt get a sugar or salt injection, or wasnt prepared out of other mysterious ingredients.
i dont like artificial colors, corn starch, or any other things making my food look like a work of art.
i just want my food, plain and simple, as close to the garden of eden, as possible.

Posted by: jkaren | July 13, 2009 8:14 PM | Report abuse

and if you are a vegetarian and go to these chains, who knows what they dress your salad with?
who knows what mysteries lurk in the ranch dressing, or russian dressing?

Posted by: jkaren | July 13, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, this is simply great column. And yes, more important - your arguments are solid.

Posted by: umesh409 | July 14, 2009 2:49 AM | Report abuse

Good post, Ezra, and a lot of good comments.

One thing I'd take issue with in the comments, though: there's a lot of research demonstrating that people use portions as a rule of thumb for how much they should eat. In one telling experiment, researchers put on a movie for two groups and gave them stale popcorn to eat. One group got a large tub, while the control group got medium sized tubs. It was made clear that there was plenty of popcorn and people could have all they wanted for free. Result: people who got big tubs ate a lot more. There are countless variations on this experiment design.

Could you teach people to make better choices? Possibly, but that seems unlikely. It's much easier, as an eater, to follow the rule of thumb that you can eat whatever's in front of you, or some reasonable proportion of that amount. (Even people who don't clean their plate seem to be influenced by portion size to eat more than they would if they were given smaller portions.)

Another good example is McDonalds. For a long time, you could only get a small bag of fries, 200 calories. McD's wanted to sell more fries and a marketer suggested a bigger package. Ray Kroc (no dummy) didn't get it; if people wanted more they'd just order a second bag. But it was pointed out to him that people would feel like gluttons for ordering it. McD's introduced large size fries and the rest, as they say, is history.

The challenge for policymakers is to think of ways to help people make good decisions without coercing them.

Posted by: Sophomore | July 14, 2009 9:58 AM | Report abuse

I agree with a lot of your points, but I wonder what would happen if gourmet restaurants were ALSO obliged to post their nutrtitional information.

It's not clear to me that you'd even always know just which entrees are lower in calories in a "real" restaurant. There's as much passion for making things taste good in high cuisine as there is in chain restaurants -- and the commitment to healthy recipes and reasonable portions seems far from a foregone conclusion.

Posted by: slapworth | July 15, 2009 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Par Fried - oh yumyumyum
Then injected with salt and sugar - move over Mickey D!!

Posted by: bronxace | July 15, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Please contact the cheesecake factory and ask they stop supporting severe animal abuse by using eggs that come from hens confined in battery cages- a enclosure so small the bird can barely move, cannot spread her wings, or ever see day light.

cheesecakefactoryfarm . com

Phone: 1-818-871-3000

Posted by: veganshani | July 15, 2009 5:17 PM | Report abuse

Fantastic column, Ezra. I'm pretty liberal, but I'm rather libertarian in one important sense: my body is mine, so keep your hands off of it. That goes for my reproductive rights AND my right to eat whatever I want, whether it be Chicken Crispers at Chili's or the 12-course tasting menu at the French Laundry.

Here's the deal. Much like Ruhlman, a lot of organic-everything, anti-big-box-store, and yes, elitist liberal types automatically deride anything that they feel is anathema to their self-professed "wholesome" way of life, often without having eaten/experienced the very thing they criticize. It's lazy, closed-minded, intolerant and disingenious, and it smacks of classism and spoiled bratitude. In short, it's the precise opposite of what I thought liberals were all about.

The Cheesecake Factory might not be Per Se, per se, but it's a fun place with yummy pumpernickel bread, exceptional service and consistently good food in portions big enough to share or take home. Don't like it? Don't eat there. But stop trying to tell me I'm somehow less of a person because I've eaten there a few times and enjoyed it.

I don't give you a hard time for your choices (though I've come close on the whole ineffective aluminum-free deodorant thing), so stop giving me a hard time for my choices. Let's leave the self-righteous policing to the people who do it best -- you got it, the Republicans.

Posted by: rachelstl | July 17, 2009 1:41 PM | Report abuse

It boggles my mind that anyone could cite David Kessler's eye opening The End of Overeating and then just a few paragraphs later say that the Cheesecake Factory isn't doing anything ethically wrong. They are selling sugar, fat, and salt delivery systems in the same way that tobacco companies are selling nicotine delivery systems. And sugar, fat, and salt kill people. Of course, nicotine and "hedonic" food are not absolutely, perfectly analogous, but in this era of spiraling obesity they are analogous enough. And truisms about personal choice and responsibility really don't cut the mustard when we're talking about companies that are spending millions upon millions of dollars to override people's rational awareness of what is healthy and tap into their impulses, addictions, and cravings. As Klein says, they don't screw around. It takes a lot of experimentation to figure out how to pack 1700 calories into a piece of ostensibly soy glazed salmon. Anyone who thinks that such experimentation is not underwritten by a conscious disregard for the health and well being of the average Cheesecake Factory customer is either naive or deluding himself.

The fact that the Cheesecake Factory takes pains to hide its nutritional information should really tell you all you need to know. The corporate food industry speaks the language of the occasional "indulgence" in public. In private, it is of course bent on turning as many customers as possible into, well, addicts. In short: It's not just that the Cheesecake Factory doesn't care if its customers get dangerously fat, or that it does not accept responsibility for its contribution to the American waistline. It's that it *needs* its customers to get fat. This is the result it seeks; this is the outcome it is paying for when it plows revenue back into R&D and marketing. How is that ethical?

Posted by: ELS1 | July 17, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

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