by Karen Weisberg
“Consistency is the most crucial and critical piece of the equation for higher volume restaurants — it will make or break the brand.” – Robert Okura
It could be argued that Frank Hardart’s New Orleans flavor- inflected five-cent cup of coffee served as catalyst in the creation of Horn and Hardart. Just so, Evelyn Overton’s “Original Cheesecake,” and her further iterations on the theme, can be credited as the initial driver of what came to be The Cheesecake Factory (TCF), a nation-wide, award-winning chain of casual dining restaurants.
The short “origin story” at the root of TCF begins in Evelyn Overton’s Detroit, Michigan kitchen where she baked, then sold her cheesecakes and other desserts to friends in the late 1940s. By the ‘70s, with children grown, she and husband Oscar moved to Los Angeles and, “with the last of their savings,” opened The Cheesecake Factory Bakery where customers included numerous local restaurants. Soon son David (like Joe Horn and Frank Hardart decades earlier) figured a casual restaurant featuring his mom’s cakes could succeed. In 1978, he opened The Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Beverly Hills, CA—boasting “Egyptian columns, wood paneling and palm trees” as kitschy, upbeat decorative elements.
Today, with more than 200 locations worldwide, the menu has steadily expanded from the 65 items David Overton knew how to cook to about 250 items, many of which are changed (or tweaked) twice a year. Here, consistency rules above all. Just as at Horn & Hardart, recipes, quality ingredients and plate presentation must be consistent in all locations, but without central commissaries, since “a lot of our food doesn’t lend itself to that type of production,” says ACF member Robert Okura, CCEC, CMRDP.
As vice president of culinary development/corporate executive chef, Okura explains that product would have to be “stabilized” for shipping and that’s not the way TCF chooses to go. “Each of our restaurants has an executive chef or ‘executive kitchen manager,'” he says. “They’re responsible for receiving, prep and making sure each item is done to very strict standards set in our Culinary Center in Calabasas Hills, California.”
When Okura joined TCF in 1988, the chain had only three locations. He was hired to help with menu development, and he and his team (usually four chefs) haven’t stopped developing new items — four or five each day — ever since. These are presented for the approval of David Overton and chief culinary officer Donald Moore who judge their “crave-ability.”
At presstime, Buratta with Pesto is slated to debut, a fit in the trendy small plates category. Although Okura didn’t arrive with a toque and French credentials (a la M. Bourdon at Horn & Hardart), he had served a brief apprenticeship in a French restaurant and, as an adult, worked in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant, both in California. “Since joining TCF, as my ‘continuing ed,’ I’ve been able to attend classes at the CIA and Johnson & Wales — and I try to take classes, when possible, wherever I travel.”Never having had the chance to dine at an Automat, Okura is a fan, nonetheless: “I’m familiar with their historical significance and how they changed the world of food service back in the day, as well as how certain aspects of modern food service are still guided by the standards that they established. I do believe that so much of what we believe in as a company and what we strive to provide to our guests is very much along the same lines as what Horn & Hardart believed in back when they first started … We owe Horn & Hardart our sincere thanks for showing us the way.”