But these restaurants operate as smoothly and efficiently as any high-tech manufacturing plant, which explains why the chain is one of the most successful sit-down operations in the nation. "A typical Cheesecake Factory," reports Restaurant Business, "generates upwards of $11 million annually." That's a hell of a lot of customers, if you figure that the check average for each patron hovers at about $15.
But food isn't the only product the Cheesecake Factory peddles. Illusion is a big part of the experience here, which is why it's easier to compare the restaurants to the movie studios of the 1930s and '40s the legendary "dream factories" than to a modern assembly line. The exterior of the Overland Park location, in fact, looks more like a Moorish palace from the Universal backlot than a casual suburban dining venue.
The cavernous interior is pure Disneyland, throwing together architectural and decorative elements from so many different eras (ancient Egyptian, Moroccan, 15th-century Venice and a splash of country French) that I couldn't decide if I really was in Overland Park or had stumbled into a time warp and landed in one of the kitschy "palace" sets of Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah. Of course, Mr. DeMille liked the casts of his movies to be attractive, which is why I knew I was still in Kansas, Dorothy. There were so many obese (and I don't mean merely chubby or pleasantly plump) customers squeezed into booths in the main dining room on one Saturday afternoon that I looked like a will-o'-the wisp by comparison.
But if I were pushing 350 pounds (and God knows, I'm on my merry way) and had a ravenous appetite, the Cheesecake Factory would be on my Top Ten list; the portions are gargantuan, and the servers a few are pretty hefty themselves encourage diners to eat, eat, eat! And perhaps because the servers' uniforms (white pants, white shirts, white shoes) are vaguely similar to what nurses used to wear, you can't help but assume that they're giving healthy advice when suggesting a hefty ol' slab of chocolate-peanut-butter-cookie-dough cheesecake.
On the afternoon I was surrounded by the cellulite set, I was dining with my friend Bob, the slender Marilyn and Marilyn's 12-year-old granddaughter, Summer. The precocious Summer loved the idea that she was eating in a factory, and no amount of explaining otherwise would dissuade her.
"But it doesn't look like a factory," she said, looking up toward the artfully painted ceiling. No, I told her, the place actually looks like a temple, a shrine devoted to Adephagia, the Greek goddess of gluttony. At that very moment, as if on cue, the waitress arrived, laden with platters of appetizers: fried macaroni-and-cheese balls, slices of chicken quesadilla that were thicker than a Vanity Fair magazine, and a pile of the restaurant's own version of White Castle burgers, called Roadside Sliders.
The little burgers are the same size as White Castle cheeseburgers but less greasy or mushy. They tasted better, too but then again, I was cold sober. I was intrigued by the idea of fried macaroni-and-cheese balls, which sounded so artery-clogging good that I couldn't resist ordering them. They certainly didn't disappoint us; each meatball-sized ball had been rolled in bread crumbs and plunged into a fryer until its surface was crispy and its interior molten and cheesy.