The Cheesecake Factory, in all of its gold-hued, dark-wood opulence; romance novel-length menu; and ancient-Egypt-meets-Vegas-Strip vibe, might not be the American dream, but certainly an American dream. It’s America’s No. 1 ranked casual-dining chain, a cult favorite among NBA players, and a place Drake never wants to fight in. It has a menu Neil Gaiman might read to raise money for charity.
When he started the brand, Cheesecake Factory founder David Overton wanted to appeal to the “palate of the common man” — affordable luxury in the form of notoriously large portions; deep, dark booths you can sink into; and walls painted colors your home is not. The Cheesecake Factory’s first location opened in Beverly Hills in 1978. Today, it has 194 locations and some offshoots: RockSugar, a Pan-Asian concept restaurant, and Grand Lux Cafe, a restaurant best described as a “little bit of everything.”
Rick McCormack, a restaurant and hospitality designer, spent 15 years working at a hospitality design firm before being asked to design Overton’s sixth Cheesecake Factory location. For those who haven’t been, McCormack jokes that his description of the interior might not be enticing. “If I try to describe to you what it looks like, you’d probably think it was one of the most horrible-looking places around,” he says. The extravagant design puts various epochs on display, ranging from ancient Egypt to the Victorian era.
When Cheesecake Factory went public in 1992, McCormack joined the company and started an in-house design department, disseminating the unique confluence of styles into restaurants all over the country. In 2008, he left and launched his own firm, Studio McCormack, amassing a portfolio that also includes MGM Grand, BJ’s Restaurants, a few Hawaiian resorts, Matchbox Restaurants (a sleek line of pizza bistros), and many more. McCormack chatted with Eater about what it’s like to create a restaurant design that works whether you’re in San Diego or Kansas City, his favorite project ever, and whether millennials still eat at Cheesecake Factory.
On where the original Cheesecake Factory design came from:
The first one I did was number six, out here in Newport Beach. They had five under their belt and really the credit for that concept goes to the founder, David Overton. His inspiration was drawn from time he spent living in San Francisco... I think that’s where the Victorian beadboard dark-wood siding came from. [The design was] without a doubt influenced by restaurants in San Francisco in the mid to late ’70s. Of course, it evolved over the years, but it was and still is a very interesting mix of design elements.
We have these French limestone floors, then we throw in some Egyptian columns, Victorian beadboard wood paneling — a really eclectic mix — which most people wouldn’t be brave enough to try, but, fortunately, the way we assembled them, it worked pretty well. You can’t knock their success. We used to say if you build it, they will come, because time after time, we’d open in a new city, and from the first day on, people would just be lining up. There’s something magical about that concept that was fun to be involved with.
On what’s changed and what hasn’t about the Cheesecake Factory design:
We always wanted to evolve the design as we built new restaurants, trying to keep it fresh in the public’s eye and to keep it interesting for us, but we never wanted to do any dramatic changes unless it was a flagship location. Certainly the top goal was not to create something trendy where it was going to be out of favor in five years and have to be redone. I think Cheesecake Factory was very successful with that, because many of the stores are 20 years old now and still predominantly the same as when they first opened.
The one design element everyone, for good reason, seems to focus on when you talk about Cheesecake Factory design are the Egyptian-style columns. Certainly they’re very unique and people immediately take notice of them, which is one reason they’re there. When David first introduced the stylized columns, he was inspired by a photo of a bathhouse he saw in London where they had taken their columns and made them look like palm trees with palm fronds at the top. I think it was in their second restaurant in Marina del Rey, which opened in 1982, he introduced columns that had the appearance of palm trees.
David has always really liked Egyptian style. I came up with the design of a column that had those elements that would take it closer to the Egyptian style he liked, and we started introducing those and they were put into about 120 restaurants.
Then we would have some flagship locations, and instead of doing the Egyptian-style columns, I designed columns that were covered with mosaic tiles to give it a little more glitz and the perception that the place was nicer. In the Las Vegas location where we had a two-story space, we did some really nice two-story columns that had custom-painted artwork on them.
On how a restaurant concept is replicated many times over, from Kansas City to New York City:
I have to admit, many times I would walk into a prospective location, and just shake my head and think, This place does not want to be a restaurant: the infrastructure’s not there, there’s no way to get the exhaust out, you’re on the second level. To David’s credit, he’s one of the few restaurant operators willing to spend the money to take a space and make it house an operating restaurant. There were definitely standard components within the design that we tried not to change too much because they were very important functionally. The bakery area when you first enter [for example]: We tried to standardize that as much as possible because it had to hold the same number of cheesecakes no matter where the restaurant was located.
The flexible part was the dining areas, the seating, and how they were laid out. The one thing about the Cheesecake design is because of the huge volume of business they do [Editor’s note: The average Cheesecake Factory sells $10.5 million in food each year, one of the highest volumes in the industry], it really had to be function over form. ... We had it really lucky because the restaurants did such great business, so David was willing to spend more building them than you normally would. That allowed us to use better materials and do more creative things like the mosaic tile. Usually that’s pretty price prohibitive, but since ultimately he knew the restaurant was going to do the business, he didn’t mind spending the money up front.
On his pinch-me moment:
The last concept I did for Cheesecake Factory before I left was RockSugar. It’s in Century City here in Los Angeles, and David decided he needed a third growth vehicle for his company and wanted to do an Asian restaurant. I’m still so very, very proud of what we created and how it turned out. So far they’ve only done the one; it hasn’t turned out to be a multi-unit concept yet.
I made a trip to a tile and stone fair in Beijing where I was able to source the flooring we used. We also ended up finding some amazing manufacturers. One lady, in particular, was an importer of wood goods from Thailand. Much of what we did were custom carvings, and she was able to supply everything we came up with and really made that restaurant possible. We had the ability to not be limited by much of a budget because it was the first of what was supposed to be a multi-unit concept.
I went to Warner Brothers Studios to have a big mural painted because it was the only place I could think of that would be able to handle a large canvas like we were doing. We got to work with the Warner Brothers art department and take trips to their studio lot, and I was just pinching myself over the artists and craftsmen we were able to work with.
On whether millennials are still going to Cheesecake Factory:
One thing we’re seeing across the board from Studio McCormack’s multi-unit accounts is the trend towards fast casual. To me, that’s a direct offshoot of the recession. ... A lot of our more traditional multi-unit clients are trying to figure out if they can come up with a fast-casual version of their restaurant to stay competitive.
It’s one of the two questions I’m asked the most: Can you come up with a fast-casual design? The second question is, How do we get the millennials to come into our restaurant? I get asked [by clients]... what we can change to get the millennials. People still like to go out for special occasions, be pampered, and feel special. Companies that do it right, like the Cheesecake Factory, are going to still be around.
Kelsey Lawrence is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.
Editor: Erin DeJesus