'The Palate of the Common Man': The Oral History of The Cheesecake Factory
The women and men behind the Cheesecake Factory reveal the untold story of how a tiny Beverly Hills restaurant known for its brown bread became a global chain mentioned in Drake songs and on "Keeping up with the Kardashians."
Photos by Amy Lombard
The Cheesecake Factory is the culinary embodiment of the Kardashians. Bear with me: Once a small enterprise in Beverly Hills, the company has become a global phenomenon adored by NBA players and name-dropped by Drake. 2016 has seen the company's profile grow even larger; today marks the opening of a restaurant in Queens, their first location in New York City.
New Yorkers from the suburbs have longed for this moment. The Cheesecake Factory represents the best parts of suburban America—mall storefronts, brown bread, and rich flavors—and the restaurant elevates those elements to spectacularly large effect, from the portion sizes to the interior design, reminiscent of both Egypt and the Eye of Sauron.
The style is in full force at the company's headquarters in Calabasas, the Los Angeles suburb where the Bratz dolls designers and Kris Jenner also run their global operations. Columns line the lobby, and marble-looking tables fill conference rooms. The aesthetic comes from the mind of the Cheesecake Factory's founder David Overton. Like Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, he rules his company with his distinct, individualistic taste, which he calls the "palate of the common man."
Read more: The Oral History of Jawbreaker
Overton prizes secrecy, even banning outsiders from their test kitchens, but he invited Broadly to the Cheesecake Factory's offices to learn his company's untold story: how an elderly woman's dream birthed a global chain, why nobody expected customers to obsess over brown bread, and how a bathhouse influenced the interior design—a story that starts far, far away from Calabasas, in middle-class Detroit when David Overton was a young boy.
David Overton (Founder, Chairman, and Chief Executive Officer): My parents had a little cheesecake factory in Detroit. My mother [Evelyn Overton] got the recipe out of a newspaper, and she said she moved it around a little bit—people loved it. We never had a lot of money. When my sister and I got old enough to go to school, she didn't like the idea that we would be latchkey kids, so she took all of her equipment from this store in Detroit. [She] moved it into her basement, and then for 25 years she made cheesecakes in Detroit out of her basement.
Finally, [in the 1970s] my parents were ready for their last attempt [at building a business]. My father was a very persevering manager salesperson, but it was really my mother that always had the drive to have her own business. I said, "Why don't you go into cheesecakes?" Because I was in California [playing in a San Francisco band after dropping out of law school], they said, "OK."
I pointed them to LA, saying it was bigger, it was more open, they have more delis. They moved out [in 1971 or 1972]. They sold their house, they paid off all their debts—they literally had $10,000—and they drove across country with my sister to LA. They started, in North Hollywood, this little cheesecake factory. My father would get in his car and go door-to-door and just try to sell cheesecakes to restaurants. I felt they were a little too mom-and-pop. I always felt I was good at business—knew I was good at business. The band I was in, I always took the business role. I moved down here, and everything really started to go well.
Linda Candioty (Vice President, Guest Experience, and the inspiration for Linda's Fudge Cake): I came back from a vacation. Early 20s. I was in between jobs, traveling, whatever. I came back from a trip to Mexico City, and I decided to have a Mexican fiesta party just for fun, and a friend of mine said, "Look, this new guy just moved here from Northern California and doesn't know anyone, can I bring him?" I said, "Sure. Why not?"
Overton: I thought she could help me test bake. And so, because she cooked such a great meal, I asked her if she wanted to do that.
Candioty: It was 1976. I'm not a cook, but I cooked great food. He's helping his mom, and she doesn't have time to add new things to the menu. The biggest dessert in the Valley was chocolate mousse pie. There was a company called La Mousse who was making a beautiful product, and we decided to add a chocolate mousse because it was the [hip] thing to add.
Overton: We haven't changed the recipe of my mother. We just make new ones with new things inside: flavors. We just try to make it as good as she did. You can't patent it. Good cheesecake is just five ingredients. It's just how you mix them.
Candioty: [Evelyn, Overton's mother] called them her boys—the bakers at the factory. If somebody's having a baby, she'd reach into her pocket [and say], "Here, go buy the baby something." "Mommy isn't feeling well? Go home early." She took care of her staff like they were her children. That's how she took care of her people.
Overton: We knew we had the Cadillac of cheesecakes—people loved the cheesecakes—[but] how could I get the cheesecakes to the people and stop going through all these restaurant tours and those types of people?
I just had a new accountant, and he was a couple years older than me. I said, "You know, we really need to build a restaurant built around the cheesecakes to get the word out, and show these restaurateurs that if you had a good enough dessert program, you could do great business. He said the four magic works: "I'll raise the money."
Candioty: When [Overton] opened it, in February of '78, he asked me if I would come help him. I fell in love with his parents; we became friends. I wasn't doing anything else at the time, so I said, "Sure. Why not?"
Overton: I was very lucky, and a realtor who knew somebody who knew somebody who just bought the building on Beverly Drive, which is still there. It was 3,200 square feet and 78 seats. It was the size I wanted. It was right on the right block. I wanted Beverly Drive, and I got it.
Candioty: If you saw the first Beverly Hills, there's just a sweet, cozy—there was nothing. It was a very simple cafe.
Overton: [Every item was named after] all friends and relatives that I asked. [Evelyn] is my mom. Renee is my sister; she was there. I think Marshall, he was my dentist.
Candioty: From the outside there was a green awning that said, "The Cheesecake Factory."
Overton: I never really liked [the name]. My parents named their business The Cheesecake Factory, and in the end I just kept it. But something about it—somebody was watching over me, whatever it was. Literally in ten minutes... every seat was full, and it just kept on going.
Candioty: They were waiting in line in front of our restaurant. I cannot explain it. We opened and were busy from the first moment. David tells me, and I don't remember this, that I went outside and chatted with everybody while they were waiting in line, and people were excited. I can't remember if they just wanted cheesecake. They didn't know the food we would have—nobody knew.
Jose Perez (original bus boy): It was busy, a very, very busy day for [Overton]. It was busy because it was his first day. Busy, busy, busy. A lot of work.
Overton: When I started, I didn't know how to work a fryer. We had hash browns for three years until I thought I could have french fries. I didn't know any tricks, and I didn't know any shortcuts. In a very small space, we just figured out how to do it.
The Rise of Brown Bread and Bathhouse-Inspired Interior Design
Although the Cheesecake Factory became a chain, the restaurant initially belonged to a small group of eateries frequented by Los Angeles's rich and famous, like Wolfgang Puck's groundbreaking Spago's. The then-wealthy housewife Kris Jenner summed up the Cheesecake Factory's status in Los Angeles in the lyrics of her vanity song "She Loves Her Friends": "Bible study, Cheesecake Factory, Tallarico." But where other Beverly Drive restaurants prided themselves on snootiness, the Cheesecake Factory aimed for approachability and a family atmosphere.
Overton: As I went out and tasted more things, and understood how to bring them down to casual dining from Wolfgang Puck['s Spago].
Patric Kuh (Los Angeles Magazine food critic): It did change with Spago, because first of all, Wolfgang's credentials were stellar. Secondly, he was really into the idea of California. He wanted to figure out what produce was in California, and he wanted to grow it so he would have trucks delivering his almond wood [for grilling] to Spago. Spago instituted the idea of something that could be LA gastronomy.
David Gordon (President): I think that Cheesecake Factory is a lot like Southern California because there's a very eclectic group of people that live in California that come from all parts of the country. Just like our menus are diverse and complex and have a lot to offer, I think Southern California has a lot to offer.
Overton: We coined the phrase "upscale casual dining." And with the dev of the food, the money we put into the decor, it became upscale casual dining, where [for] the most part, if you had more money, you would come to Cheesecake.
Candioty: We had business people. Mr. Ives, he was a business person from up the street. He would come for a business meeting at lunch, and he would come back at night with his family. We had a lot of those. We had stars that I can't remember today. We had actors. Sylvester Stallone came in, and I seated him, and he wanted that table by the window, but I had people waiting. I said, "I can't give it to you. Come back in a half hour."
Overton: People would get off the plane from London and say, "The first restaurant I'm going to is Cheesecake" because they had heard about it. It was the cheesecakes. It just got to have this huge reputation.
People [loved] the brown bread. There were some restaurants in San Francisco that had the long sourdough, and they were making their sandwiches and burgers on it.
Kuh: Sourdough has been popular in San Francisco since the Gold Rush. Pioneer and the other big San Francisco [bread bakers] have been making sourdough for a 100 years. You [could] buy San Francisco sourdough in the Valley in the 70s. Was it popular in the 70s? Sure, but it was also popular in the 60s, 50s, 40s, 30s, and the 90s.
Overton: I used a very good sourdough guy who was in LA, and I tasted what was then called squaw bread, and I asked him if he could make that for me in the long shape, so I could make a burger or sandwich on a wheat-ish type bread. It turned out to be delicious, and we started serving both breads on the table instead of just sourdough, and people loved it, and now it's pretty much a staple. People really like it. There's been several rappers that have had lines in their songs: Bow Wow, Outkast. Outkast was pretty big at the time.
Gordon: The portions are large because we want people to share. We want people to have experiential dining versus just coming in for a transactional meal, [like], "I'm hungry, I need to go eat somewhere."
Overton: I loved being a Beverly Hills merchant. I loved going outside and sweeping the sidewalk outside, because for five years, we didn't grow until this incredible restaurant [was] offered to me on the water in Marina Del Rey, and I thought, Why not, let's open a second one.
Candioty: It was about two years and then I moved into management [at Beverly Hills and then the second Cheesecake Factory in Marina Del Rey, California, which opened in 1983].
Overton: When I opened Marina, I was searching for something that could be us. It would be a real, identifiable interior. I saw a picture of a bathhouse in New York that had a column that was made into a palm tree. I did that there. I saw another [bathhouse] over time that had the columns made into Egyptian columns. I saw that and said, "I like that." I always liked the Egyptian era. I started to put that out, and it kind of became some things that people really talked about. I wanted something timeless.
Candioty: Prior to [going public], we [were] only traveling around. We had the trunk of my car. We had one Mac. It had hard disks that were called floppy discs, and you put it in, and we wrote guest letters. We had the recipes on there—all in one box. God forbid we lost that thing!
Overton: I just thought it would be a good idea to change the menu two times a year, so we did. We [had] the two-page menu but as the menu grew, it started to be a little book. This gentleman came to me one day, and he was just cold-calling for his business and that's what they did: menu advertising. I think it's called Menu Dynamics, and he would give me the menus if I would let him put the ads in.
Candioty: All the way to restaurant number five in January of '91 in DC, there were four of us in operations/management that traveled to all five restaurants.
Overton: At the beginning I didn't know it was going to be a chain. I didn't open it to be a chain. I didn't really realize what I was doing when I kept putting items on, but the items were good [and] people liked [the big menu]. As we figured out how to do that, we got busier. I almost felt semi-retired, and then [the business] started to grow, and then I thought,OK. I'll open one a year.
The first restaurants weren't in malls. Then, I think [what made most of them be in malls] was [the first Cheesecake Factory] in Washington, DC. [The mall] really wanted us; they made a play for us. I said, "I like this shopper." I don't like when lunch ends at 1:30, and you're in a business park, and you have to wait till dinner, but having the shoppers stop in at two and three and having some dessert and coffee and some light foods—which our menu is perfect for—I liked that. So we picked malls.
Candioty: I remember when we got a fax machine. Whoa, man! We were already open in DC, and one of us was there. I had to check a schedule, like a holiday schedule or a holiday cake order. "How many did you say you're on, on Friday? Wait a minute, go back to Thursday." And we're writing it, because we're across the country. Sometime right after that somebody said, "[There's] this thing called a fax machine." Remember the paper in a roll? That's how far back. They were like $500, horribly expensive. I said it was ridiculous, and we did it, and we couldn't live without it because we had five restaurants, and we needed to know [the schedule or order].
Overton: In 1992, a lot of small restaurant companies were going public, and I knew nothing about going public. I knew nothing, but [investment banks] came to me. They called and said, "Do you have any interest? We see how popular you are." I said, "I only have five restaurants."
Candioty: We went public after number five, which was crazy.
Overton: I wanted to be able to retire my mother. I wanted to be able to share some of the profits with the managers and people that worked with me. We interviewed many, many companies, thought about it a lot, and in 1992 we went public.
We built our bakery over here [in Calabasas] with that money.
Candioty: We moved [into the headquarters], and I had my baby. I have two kids and they're each the age of the buildings, because I was pregnant both times. I moved in, put everything away on a Friday, went home, and gave birth that next morning just like that.
The Couple Who Eats at Cheesecake Factory Ten Times a Week
Although the Cheesecake Factory evolved from small local restaurant to a mall chain, the restaurant has retained customers like an old-timey deli. Candioty goes through emails from the company's biggest fans and has even developed relationships with some of them.
Candioty: We have anniversary couples that celebrate and send us pictures every year. John Lollice in White Plains who writes once a week in all caps to tell us, "EVERYTHING WAS DELICIOUS AS USUAL MARIBELLA WAS THERE AND SHE TOOK GREAT CARE OF ME." All one sentence, by the way. I love it. It gives me the chills.
We have [a retired couple named] Chuck and Odette, who dine ten to twelve times a week. Mostly Sacramento, Palm Springs because they also live there, [and] also San Diego. Everybody knows them. Everybody knows what they eat.
Odette Ebersole: I'm a Diet Coke-aholic so they keep up my refills. They know that makes me happy!
Chuck Ebersole: That's the only way you can eat at some place ten to twelve times a week for 30 years.
Odette: Our first time at the Cheesecake Factory—we think it was in the 1990s. I know San Diego was the very first one we went to: the flavor, the taste, variety on the menu.
Chuck: It's kind of nice to get really top-notch service when they really care. You put those servers up against other restaurants. I had an experience with [an expensive restaurant] last night that was just deplorable, and I've never had anything like that happen at Cheesecake Factory.
Odette: I would tell you I love the brown bread, but I usually tell them, "Don't bring it to the table," because I'll eat it. I've actually lost 40 pounds while eating at the Cheesecake Factory all the time, and that's because I watch my bread intake and all the carbs. The servings are just so big there. I usually order things like the chicken but no potatoes with it. That's how I lost 40 pounds, but the brown bread, oh boy. You bring that hot bread to the table, I can't resist.
Chuck: For instance, the Chicken Costoletta is three pounds of chicken breast. You don't have to eat all three. You can eat two and take one home, or you can split it. You get your money's worth.
Odette: I have some wonderful memories that are close to my heart, and I hope I don't start crying when I tell you this. When I shattered my shoulder, and I was in physical therapy for nine months, I couldn't hold my hair, put my makeup on, or anything like that, and they let me sit outside kind of in a corner by myself where I wanted to sit. They were so nice and so gracious to me.
My dad passed away two weeks exactly after my mom, and we used to take them to Cheesecake all the time. Some of the servers and managers and kitchen people came to the funeral. That just meant so much to me that they cared so much, and they knew I was going through a hard time. They were just so kind and went extra, extra out of their way to make me feel better with an open heart.
The Future of the Cheesecake Factory
As the Cheesecake Factory has grown, they have become renowned for a computerized system that allows them to predict what people will eat and throw out less than five percent of food they purchase. The New Yorker even championed it as a model for the healthcare industry. The Cheesecake Factory has also added two new restaurants: the chain Grand Lux Cafe and a new restaurant called RockSugar inspired by India, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore. In Los Angeles, RockSugar feels like the original Cheesecake Factory of 2016. It's located in the Westfield Century City mall near the offices of Creative Arts Agency and several high-end entertainment attorneys, and professionals flock there for take-out and lunch. Previous guests have included Taylor Swift, Halle Berry, and Selena Gomez. Overton hopes to turn it into another sensation, but the Cheesecake Factory remains the core of the company.
Overton: [The kitchen became] much more high-powered [as the Cheesecake Factory grew]. We can cook much more food, and our restaurants are much bigger. It's actually very similar [to the original restaurant], although it's totally customized to us.
We have these 250 menu items, and we do make everything in-house—everyday. We have 70 sauces, dressings, and we make them all. Most people find that hard to believe. It's really just me. I was never in the restaurant business. I really didn't know any other way. People really responded the first day to the food, what we were serving, the quality. It was just what I wanted to eat and what I wanted to make. We just kept that up, and I wasn't interested in doing it any other way.
Gordon: We have a legacy here of being a family business. A two billion dollar business that was founded back in Detroit making simple cheesecakes, and if you think about great American entrepreneur stories, Cheesecake is one of the greatest stories. Forty years may seem like a long time, but [a] 50, 60, 70, 80, 100-year-old company is not something that we can't be.
Candioty: We have a busser in Beverly Hills who's been with us since I was a hostess. He's a musician first and bussing pays his bills. We have many 30-year staff in Beverly Hills. We have managers [and] area directors in the very high 20s.
Gordon: There's only nearly 200 Cheesecake Factories today. We said publicly that there could be up to 300 with some of the things that we're working on, but we can only do all of that if we have the right talent to be able to do it.
I think we can continue to resonate around the world with success with all three of our international partners, whether that's in the Middle East or Latin America or launching our first restaurant in Asia in Shanghai Disney—I think there's more opportunities for us there.
Overton: We don't have any food reviews, and we don't do focus groups. It's really me and what I like. I don't like gourmet food, I don't like odd things. There's a lot of things I don't like—I certainly don't like raw fish these days.
I understand what people want to eat, and my tastebuds I think are of the common man. When we put something on, a lot of people really like it. I trust my own tastebuds, and if I like it or love it, usually there's a whole bunch of millions of people that like it.