The Cheesecake Factory, land of faux-Egyptian pillars and behemoth portions of fettuccine alfredo, is launching a fast-casual restaurant. Tragically, the first quick-service endeavor from the beloved Calabasas, California-based chain will not serve Oreo Dream Extreme cheesecake or Buffalo Blasts: Called Social Monk Asian Kitchen, it’s described as “a fast-casual Asian concept with a modern urban feel.” The company tells Eater it’s been in development for about a year and a half, and is slated to open this fall in the affluent LA suburb of Thousand Oaks.
It’s not the company’s first foray into “Asian” food: It also owns and operates the full-service RockSugar Southeast Asian Kitchen, which was founded in 2008 and now has two locations in LA and Chicago. RockSugar chef Mohan Ismail, who hails from Singapore, will also serve as culinary director for Social Monk. The menu is still in development, but the company says it will include dishes from Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, China, Indonesia and India, including noodles, sandwiches, and curries; there will also be salads, rice bowls, “some creative flavors of house-made frozen custard,” and beer and wine.
This makes Cheesecake Factory just the latest big chain to launch a fast-casual spinoff, in a time when mid-level chains are famously struggling: Hooters launched a quick-service concept, aptly called Hoots, in the Chicago suburbs last year, while Cracker Barrel debuted a new fast-casual brand, Holler & Dash, in 2016.
Despite long being a bright spot in the dismal casual dining market — its average location rakes in more than twice the annual revenue of the typical Olive Garden — even the Cheesecake Factory has had its share of struggles recently: Often located in shopping malls, which are dying off in recent years, its sales hit a slump last year after 29 straight quarters of growth, though it looks to be back on the upswing, with same-store sales up 2 percent in the first quarter of 2018.
So why not a counter-service spinoff of the Cheesecake Factory itself, which, despite some recent sales woes, seems to be universally adored by everyone from NBA players to Drake? “We were really interested in creating a new concept, and thought Asian food would lend itself very well to a fast-casual setting,” says Cheesecake Factory founder and CEO David Overton.
Perhaps the Kardashian-adored Cheesecake Factory, with its giant spiral-bound menu, is too broad to be condensed into a fast-casual version, or maybe the company worried that a fast-casual version would dilute the brand name too much; regardless, according to Overton, “We don’t have any plans to create a fast-casual Cheesecake Factory at this time.”
And then there’s that rather strange name: Overton explains they wanted something “that was immediately intriguing and also somewhat playful and very approachable,” though one has to wonder how actual residents of a monastery would feel about their likeness being co-opted by a quick-service restaurant hawking noodles and frozen custard.
One also has to wonder if the fast-casual market really needs another pan-Asian chain: That sphere is already dominated by brands like Pei Wei, which has 200 locations across the U.S. Social Monk is indeed intended to be a chain, but additional locations aren’t in development just yet: “We want to focus on getting this first location opened and ensure everything is operating well before we start looking for additional sites,” says Overton.