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Chains R Us


Posted on October 12

Photo by Ron Schwager

In a recent Thursday at noon, we wrestled our way to the door of The Cheesecake Factory on Arden Way, through clots of people outside. In the nearby parking lot, an ambulance and a fire truck idled, lights flashing. Inside the restaurant, a team of paramedics attended to an elderly woman laid out on a bench as hoards of professional types milled around, waiting for a lunchtime table, seemingly oblivious to the drama unfolding next to them. The restaurant was packed, waiters laden with plates sailed between tables, and a ragged line of anxious-looking wanna-eats snaked densely through the lobby. As I glanced behind me, I saw more people approaching the door—assuming, blithely, that there might be an empty table waiting for them. “What is this place?” asked my wide-eyed 8-year-old. “Is it famous or something?”

It was an apt question. In its own way, The Cheesecake Factory is indeed famous in Sacramento—as are Joe’s Crab Shack, P. F. Chang’s China Bistro, Romano’s Macaroni Grill and a handful of other “theme restaurants” that have descended on our region in the past several years. Try to find a parking place at Buca di Beppo on Howe Avenue, as we did, at 5:15 on a Saturday evening. Our suggestion? Bring hiking boots: You may need them for the long trek from the outer reaches of the packed parking lot to the restaurant’s welcoming front door. Along the way, you’ll pass parents patting the backs of fretful children, clusters of cell-phone users and a few guilty-looking patrons who’ve stepped outside for a smoke.

More than just a restaurant, Buca di Beppo—and its high-energy, high-volume brethren—is a consumer magnet whose appeal lies in its ability to simultaneously dish up good-tasting food and amusement for the senses. A term has been coined for this type of a dining experience: eatertainment.

At The Cheesecake Factory, says Howard Gordon, senior vice president of business development and marketing, “we’re here to create a guest experience. We want people to be part of the party.”

And what a party it is. You are seated in a palatial, gulpingly high-ceilinged room, decorated with Egyptian columns, hand-painted murals, delicate blown-glass light fixtures and warm cherry-wood accents. (Credit the Calabasas Hills-based company’s 19-person design team for the ambiance: “We love grand restaurants,” Gordon gushes.) Then, you are presented with an 18-page menu resembling a laminated phone book, bursting with virtually any item your hearts may desire. Craving Mexican food? Try the Factory Burrito Grande or the fresh fish tacos. Asian cuisine aficionados will be happy to discover the Vietnamese shrimp summer rolls, while dieters may opt for the Luau salad or the fire-roasted fresh artichoke.

“Our demographics are literally everybody,” says Gordon with a chuckle. “You can find anything on this menu.” That includes, of course, the company’s renowned cheesecake—available in 35 flavors, to be exact. “Can you imagine how many chefs they must have back there,” I heard a woman asking her dining companion during our visit, “just to crank all this stuff out?”

Highly dubious of the kitchen’s ability to “crank out” quality food with a menu this large, we ordered the Chicken Madeira (“Our most popular chicken dish!” boasts the menu) and the Famous Factory Meatloaf. To our surprise, both were good. In fact, the chicken was more than good: It was tender, and the sauce was complex and delectably sweet. I realized that if I had ordered it in an upscale “independent” restaurant, I would have been pleased. The enormous slabs of meatloaf, dense and somewhat salty, were certainly as palatable as (maybe even better than) my mother-in-law’s. And that’s saying something. The vegetables accompanying the meat were fresh, and the mashed potatoes—although more airy than I like—were smooth and creamy. During the meal, our friendly waitress recounted the history of the restaurant with genuine warmth and affection. “These people are good,” said my husband between bites of meatloaf.

He’s right- $1 billion-a-year good, in fact. According to cheery Howard Gordon, the company’s sales hit the Big B last year. The success of the 91-restaurant chain is no fluke. The corporate office is an R&D machine, hawkishly monitoring consumer eating habits. “We stay constantly ahead of trends,” notes Gordon proudly. A team is sent out around the country several times a year on “eating tours” to explore emerging and successful independent and regional chain restaurants to see (and sample) what’s hot. Twice a year, The Cheesecake Factory’s menu is changed to provide what the team feels are the most cutting-edge, attractive items. Each time, approximately six to eight items are removed to make way for “something else in that category that will appeal to our customers,” says Gordon. In addition to the eating tours, he adds, the team constantly is “reading cookbooks and watching cooking shows.”

The Cheesecake Factory is not alone in its laserlike focus on research and development. It is, in fact, the hallmark of any successful chain restaurant, regardless of whether it provides flamboyant theatrics for its customers.

“Chain or ‘concept’ restaurants have it figured out on a number of fronts,” explains Jot Condie, president and CEO of the California Restaurant Association. “They are fairly nimble when it comes to meeting customer needs. They implement changes to their menu and restaurants based on [the] trends they’ve identified through their own market research, so the outcome of the changes is more predictable and therefore less risky than for an independent restaurant. Although independents may actually be able to change [their menu and the look of their restaurant] more easily, those without the resources to conduct market research may have a harder time risking such a change.” Another advantage the chains enjoy, he points out, is economy of scale, which translates into staggering purchasing power.

There is a real and compelling reason why people patronize chains. “Human beings want to conserve energy and minimize risk when making decisions in everyday life,” says professor David Bunch of the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. “It takes mental effort to evaluate a new restaurant choice,” he explains. “You have no idea whether it is good or bad until you try it. Franchises provide us with a known quantity when we go from place to place, or at least they make an attempt to do so.” In Paris, he points out, “there is a McDonald’s outside of the Louvre—filled with Americans. Sometimes we just want to make an easy choice and have food that is familiar, in familiar surroundings.”

Bethany Davenport, a 21-year-old Citrus Heights resident, would agree. One of her very favorite restaurants? Red Robin, a Colorado-based burger chain with several locations in the Sacramento region. “This is just a fun and relaxed environment,” she says. “It also has the best strawberry lemonade in the world, and it’s always on the menu. If I was traveling somewhere else and I saw a Red Robin, I would definitely eat there. I know how the food tastes, and I know what I’m going to get.”

Sacramento diners have certainly embraced their chains with vigor. Step into Joe’s Crab Shack, where energetic young waiters wearing shirts emblazoned with “Bite Me” and “We’ve Got the Crabs” spontaneously break into syncopated dance routines, gyrating to a cacophony of loud music, or Romano’s Macaroni Grill, where patrons are regaled by aria-belting waiters, and it’s likely the place will be crammed full. At Buca di Beppo, Sacramento’s temple of Italian kitsch, flocked-velvet walls are plastered with a dizzying gallery of black-and-white photos, from lush, bosomy shots of a young Sophia Loren and grainy family photos to grave depictions of an array of past popes. Speaking of popes, the restaurant even features a tongue-in-cheek circular “Pope Room,” with a round table dominated by a life-size plaster bust of Pope John Paul II encased in plastic. (When we visited, it had been removed out of respect for his very recent passing.)

 “It’s the ambiance, it’s the music, it’s the whole package,” shouted Sacramento’s Felicia Hill over the din at P. F. Chang’s China Bistro, attempting to explain the allure of this boisterous chain’s success. Hill, a seasoned restaurant goer, doesn’t consider P.F. Chang’s, Il Fornaio, Morton’s or Buca di Beppo as chain restaurants. “They have really good food,” she says. “Chains, to me, are places like T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s [Grill & Bar].” While dining at Piatti, yet another Sacramento “concept” restaurant, we met a regular who said, “I don’t think of Piatti as a chain restaurant, because it’s upscale. They wouldn’t advertise themselves as a chain, because it would be bad for their business. The word ‘chain’ makes me think of McDonald’s, and if you said ‘a chain that wasn’t fast food,’ I would think of a place like Red Robin.”

But the Red Robins of the chain world are no less popular in our region than the campy establishments offering high-energy eatertainment. Every year, chains such as Carver’s Steaks & Chops, The Old Spaghetti Factory, P. F. Chang’s and T.G.I. Friday’s consistently top the list of winners in Sacramento magazine’s readers’ picks of their favorite restaurants. It comes as no surprise, then, that Sacramento has been referred to more than once as a “chain town.” If that’s the case, what makes our region such fertile ground for these paragons of predictable cuisine?

“Sacramento is America,” says UC Davis’ Bunch. “Although it, of course, has its own unique qualities, it has a demographic and behavioral profile that is close to ‘middle America.’ It is well-known that Sacramento is a great test market for products that might have broad appeal to a large cross section of American consumers.”

This love affair with chains is a source of frustration for some of our region’s independent restaurateurs and chefs, who yearn for a more intrepid and curious diner. Case in point: chef Mark Liberman’s resentful, well-publicized exit from Roseville’s Cascades restaurant in February. Disgusted with customers “afraid to eat,” Liberman threw in the towel and headed out to a more glamorous culinary market—but not before firing an e-mail to a handful of colleagues and members of the media explaining his departure. “Cascades is the third restaurant I was executive chef at in Sacramento,” he penned. “The first two were Savoy 614 and Plates in Folsom. All opening menus of each restaurant were extremely different except for one thing—I refused to serve chicken breast, Caesar salad, crab cakes, filet mignon and calamari. These five sinister items are scattered across every white-tablecloth restaurant menu as if [they] are required to call yourself [sic] a ‘fine dining’ establishment.” Liberman feels that “for a town that is supposedly wanting to become a big city, its culinary scene got left behind somewhere in the early ’90s” and that he was perceived by some customers as “some sort of crazed lunatic” for attempting to serve items like stuffed pig trotters.

Liberman may be a particularly caustic example of Sacramento’s cadre of thwarted chefs, but we encountered quite a few while researching this article. “When I put pancetta on our pizza,” says Hangar 17’s chef Chris Lombardi, “people ask, ‘What’s pancetta?’ When we tell them it’s Italian bacon, they say, ‘Can you please take it off the pizza?’” There are “tons of things” Lombardi would like to put on his menu, he sighs, but he’s afraid they won’t sell. “People need to open their minds,” he says. However, he’s confident that Sacramento diners are growing more sophisticated. “This summer, I’m planning to offer stuffed zucchini flowers,” he adds brightly, “but I don’t want to overextend myself.”

Chef Jim Turknett of Chanterelle restaurant takes a more laid-back approach. “After 18 years [at Chanterelle], I have a pretty good concept of what people will and won’t eat,” he says easily. “Anything I feel I want to put on my menu, I just do. If people don’t order it, I just take it off.” However, Turknett places a lot of stock in his trained wait staff. “If I can get my servers behind an item, it usually sells,” he explains, pointing with amusement to the rattlesnake fajitas and frogs’ legs he’s offered patrons that “sold like hot cakes” when his wait staff described them with knowledge and enthusiasm.

As for the extravagant multisensory playhouses we know as theme restaurants, our ongoing attraction to them simply may be a result of our desire to immerse ourselves in colorful entertainment that provides a much-needed escape from humdrum daily routines.  Walk into BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse in Folsom, with its enormous, flickering television screens, its warm crush of bodies and the buzzing energy of a celebratory night on the town, and you may feel like you’re at the circus.

And even if you are a staunch supporter of local, independent restaurant dining, it’s hard to ignore the fact that chains do fill a niche—and probably are here to stay. “Starbucks offers a service to the public, whether I like it or not,” says Joy Reed, owner of Granite Bay’s highly regarded—and independent—Spoons Market Cafe & Bakery. Reed readily admits to a weakness for Costco hotdogs and says her favorite “chain food” is a Burger King Whopper—hold the cheese. “I’ve always liked them,” she confesses, “and every chance I get, when no one is looking, I go through the drive-through and buy one.”