Why you gotta fight with me at Cheesecake You know I love to go there - Drake, Childs Play, 2016
When the famous Canadian rapper Drake expressed his anger about getting into a fight at an establishment of the American restaurant chain The Cheesecake Factory in his song Childs Play, Twitter exploded with fans claiming that yes, they too truly love “TCF”.
They are not alone. In fact, according to data of the first quarter of 2022 from market research and data analysis agency YouGov, The Cheesecake Factory is the 9th most popular chain restaurant in the U.S. This paper will discuss several aspects that explain The Cheesecake Factory’s ongoing popularity since its opening almost fifty years ago, such as its portion size and interior. However, I want to argue that the restaurant’s most unique feature, namely its incredibly extensive menu, is the primary explanation for the chain’s success. This will be explained by connecting the menu to, what in my eyes is, America’s greatest desire: having the ultimate freedom of choice.
I will begin by covering a short history of The Cheesecake Factory and its menu, before discussing some of its remarkable features and their appeal to the middle-class. After that, theories about the American culture and the desire for choice will be presented and used to explain the appeal of such an extensive menu. Finally, I will offer a counter-argument in the shape of “the paradox of choice”, which I will refute based on findings of marketing research.
A Growing Menu
Currently, the menu holds a whopping 250 items, not including drinks and the healthier “skinnylicious” menu. However, this has not always been the case. When David Overton founded the first The Cheesecake Factory in 1972 in Beverly Hills, California, the menu consisted of dishes found on any regular diner menu, namely burgers, salads, sandwiches and – of course – cheesecake. In an interview with Thrillist, Overton recalls how after a year, the restaurant decided to expand the menu. Overton’s strategy was essentially very simple: he just added whatever dishes he personally liked, and when the costumers reacted positively, they stayed.
By the early ‘80s, it was time for the next step. More locations opened up across Southern California and the menu expanded once again, drastically. This time, another strategy was adapted. Overton kept an eye on all the popular restaurants in the area, and added whatever dishes they served to The Cheesecake Factory menu. This way TCF always served the guest’s favorites, while simultaneously decreasing the restaurant’s competition. The menu kept growing, as well as the number of cuisines the dishes stemmed from. First Mexican dishes were introduced, after which pastas and parms followed. Right now, the menu features almost every thinkable dish, from steak and seafood, to Italian pizza, Mexican tamale’s, Thai lettuce wraps and Chinese orange chicken. Eventually, Overton decided the menu had gotten big enough. In recent years the number of dishes remains at 250, although every year ten to fifteen items get replaced by others.
The Ultimate Middle-Class Dining Experience
Before explaining the appeal of such an extensive menu, I want to take a closer look at The Cheesecake Factory’s reputation and some of the restaurant’s key features that have contributed to its immense popularity.
A “postmodern design hellscape”, that’s how Twitter user @MaxKriegerVG described The Cheesecake Factory’s aesthetic in a now famous Twitter thread about his visit to one of the chain’s locations. Its design can certainly be described as postmodern, although others might prefer the term “weird” or perhaps “ugly”. The exterior is a striking mixture of standard American suburban architecture, Greco-Roman cornices and a roof that seems inspired by the ones found on mosques (see image 1). This aesthetic, overarching both cultures and historical periods, has also found its way to the inside. There, pseudo-Egyptian columns (including fake hieroglyphs) and palm trees take centerstage, while fresco-like murals grace the walls. Water is served in German-inspired tankards on fake marble tables, while sitting in a wicker chair resembling the ones found in French bistros. This eclectic mix of different styles is one of the key characteristics that define The Cheesecake Factory.
Its menu is even more famous. The first thing that immediately catches the eye when looking at the menu is obviously its length. While other restaurants usually opt for a single sheet or maybe a folder, The Cheesecake Factory presents its guests with an actual book, with a long edge binding by metal rings. The lay-out consists of a classic font in black on yellow paper with a design that reminds of medieval motifs (see image 2). The pages list all the dishes and their main ingredients from the top to the bottom of each page, divided by fourteen sections such as “Quick Bites”, “Glamburgers” and “Steak/Chops/Fish/Seafood”. The menu truly reads like a book; one could spend almost the entire evening reading it and still won’t make it to the separate (though smaller) dessert, cheesecake or “skinnylicisous” menus.
I’m convinced that all these design choices, together with the locations, food and service, are a crucial part of the tremendous attractive power The Cheesecake Factory has on its target group: the middle-class. According to Charlotte Biltekoff’s article about the history of the American diet, dietary ideals “reflect social ideals; they communicate profoundly important and widely shared (at least among the middle-class) ideas about what it means to be a good person and, by extension, a good citizen.” The Cheesecake Factory uses these ideas to their advantage. The food is affordable, ranging from $10 for appetizers to $15-25 for entrées. However, more importantly, it’s of a high quality and made from scratch, reflecting the middle-class’s wish for “fresh” and therefore presumably “healthy” food (although TCF’s 2170 calorie shrimp pasta is obviously far from healthy). The portions are huge, which is of course not healthy at all, but they are cost-effective, since they result in a load of left-overs to take home. The wide range of items and cuisines on the menu guarantee that there is always a dish to everyone’s liking, making it easier for families with kids to go out for dinner.
Not only the food meets the middle-class’s needs, The Cheesecake Factory’s locations and aesthetic do so as well. The chain’s establishments are often found near or inside malls, attracting those with expendable income, and are easily accessible from suburban areas, where most middle-class Americans live. The interior, wildly postmodern as it may be, is the perfect combination of luxury and casualness, which makes the guests feel special, while still allowing them to be comfortable. The waiters are well-trained and attentive, partly due to their two-week training program, but also approachable and in no way snobby.  Striking details, like the dimmed lightning and the waiters’ neat uniforms, give the restaurants a fancier feeling than other major dining chains.
All these features combined result in a restaurant that gives the middle-class the opportunity to eat good food for reasonable prices, receive great service without feeling out of place and enjoy each other’s company without worrying about different dietary preferences. In short: The Cheesecake Factory is the ultimate middle-class night out.
A Desire for Choice
Other upscale casual dining chains, however, such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster, also cater to these middle-class wishes. Therefore, I argue that although The Cheesecake Factory’s striking interior, enormous portion size and great service certainly contribute to its success, the extensiveness of the menu is the primary reason people keep on coming back.
This can be explained by taking a closer look at American culture as it has developed throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. As psychologists Hazel Rose Markus and Barry Schwartz explain in their article about the relationship between choice and happiness, American society is deeply embedded by the idea that more choices equal greater wellbeing. This is based on the assumptions that autonomy results in greater wellbeing, and thus that increased choice is equivalent to a sense of freedom and autonomy.
Psychologists Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper make a similar argument. According to them, the concept of freedom lays at the heart of the American identity. They explain that: “‘Liberty,’ after all, is enshrined subordinate only to life itself in our Declaration of Independence.” Thomas Jefferson, one of the writers of the Declaration, also made the connection between freedom and choice, proclaiming that “Freedom is the right to choose the right to create for oneself the alternatives of choice. Without the possibility of choice, and the exercise of choice, a man is not a man but a member, an instrument, a thing.” The idea that choice is both desirable and powerful has a strong hold on American culture, as it holds central that individuals are able to find and select the option that best match their personal preferences. Besides that, various research done by American phycologists has shown that providing choice will increase one’s sense of personal control, autonomy and empowerment, and increases an individual’s intrinsic motivation.
Besides a desire for freedom and autonomy, another force is also at play when it comes to choice: an eagerness to be unique. As Iyengar and Lepper explain, American individualism has led to the belief that one needs to be special. A way to achieve this “uniqueness” is by making choices that no one else makes. This way, choice is not only connected to an individual’s feelings of freedom, but also to their sense of self and identity. This translates into a plethora of choices in American society, for example in the supermarket, where there is often an entire aisle devoted to different kinds of cereals or soft drinks. All these choices enable Americans to not only express and receive their personal preference, but is also a chance to establish their unique identity that reflects their sense of self”.
This American desire for choice is directly translated into The Cheesecake Factory’s menu. As previously discussed, Overton expanded the menu by simply adding what he thought customers liked, so that the restaurant always had something to everyone’s taste, which gave the customers no reason to go somewhere else. The number of items on the menu ensures that every guest gets what they desire, while simultaneously arousing feelings of power and autonomy. The customer is in control: he or she can order practically everything they might desire. The surrealness of the fact that you’re sitting in a cheesecake restaurant in a suburban mall and are able to order pasta with a side of Thai chicken and mini-hamburgers as appetizers is completely forgotten in the excitement of experiencing this freedom. All of a sudden everything is possible, as long as you make a choice.
The Paradox of Choice
However, the process of actually making a choice is not as simple as it may seem. Recent research has concluded that when it comes to the number of available options, less is actually more. Although making choices makes individuals feel empowered, the consequences of a wrong choice are one’s own responsibility as well. Psychologists Thomas Saltsman and Mark Seery explain that when someone is presented with only a few options, a bad outcome can be blamed on the lack of options. However, a bad choice out of many options feels like it’s a direct reflection on the person that made the choice. This makes the weight of each decision, no matter how insignificant, feel more burdensome. An overload of choices therefore works paralyzing and makes individuals less satisfied with the outcome.
That would mean that The Cheesecake Factory’s menu is actually a repellent factor instead of an attracting one. However, over the years the menu has received a sort of cult-status. This is partly due to the fact that the length of the menu is a favorite topic for comedians, for instance in a famous 2018 segment of the “The Ellen Show”. For many, the menu has become the first thing that comes to mind when they think of The Cheesecake Factory, not because of its specific dishes, but because its extensiveness is so unique. This is why marketing experts Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin call the menu “the restaurant's secret customer-acquisition weapon.” They explain that the menu’s vastness is so unusual that it compels conversations among its patrons. Because the menu’s unique length sparks conversation, The Cheesecake Factory only needs to spend a fraction (0.20 percent) of its total sales on advertising. The size of the menu does not scare guests away but has achieved the exact opposite: it has turned customers of The Cheesecake Factory into volunteer marketers.
In the almost fifty years since its opening, The Cheesecake Factory has managed to stay one the most popular casual dining chains in the United States. The combination of tasty, yet affordable food, huge portions, a striking interior and good service has made it a middle-class all-time favorite. However, it’s the length of the menu that really guarantees the chain’s success. This is because a desire for choice is deeply embedded in the America culture. Being able to make choices is linked to feelings of autonomy and uniqueness. Therefore, in the minds of Americans, more choices translates to greater happiness.
Although more recent research has questioned these assumptions and claims that an overload of choices is paralyzing, I argue that this doesn’t to apply to The Cheesecake Factory. The dining chain has overcome the paradox of choice precisely because it offers so many choices. Its guests know that they’ll be overwhelmed by choices, but the absurdity of it all is what makes it fun. The menu serves as the perfect conversation starter, either by making fun of it, discussing favorite dishes or fantasizing about what to get next time. What could’ve been the restaurant’s downfall, has proved to be its strongest feature. Just like Overton thought all along.
 Myles Tanzer, “Drake Revealed His Love Of The Cheesecake Factory on VIEWS,” Fader, April 29, 2016, https://www.thefader.com/2016/04/29/drake-cheesecake-factory-childs-play-views.
 Paul Feinstein and Madison Troyer, “50 most popular chain restaurants in America,” Stacker, May 10, 2022, https://stacker.com/food-drink/50-most-popular-chain-restaurants-america?page=4.
 Ron Ruggless, “2017 Golden Chain Award winner: David Overton,” Nation’s Restaurant News, October 1, 2017, https://www.nrn.com/people/2017-golden-chain-award-winner-david-overton.
 Wil Fulton, “Why Cheesecake Factory's Menu Is so Damn Big, According to Its Founder,” Thrillist, October 19, 2018, https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/cheesecake-factory-menu-explained.
 Caitlyn Hitt, “The Aptly Long History of The Cheesecake Factory,” Thrillist, August 18, 2020, https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/history-of-the-cheesecake-factory.
 Fulton, “Why Cheesecake Factory’s Menu Is So Damn Big.”
 Hitt, “The Aptly Long History.”
 Max Knoblauch, “This Twitter thread explains how Cheesecake Factory became the weirdest restaurant on earth,” Mashable, November 17, 2017, https://mashable.com/article/cheesecake-factory-history-twitter-thread.
 Charlotte Biltekoff, “Critical Nutrition Studies,” in The Oxford Handbook of Food History, ed. Jeffrey M. Pilcher (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 173.
 Ruggless, “2017 Golden Chain Award winner.”
 Hillary Hoffower, “Americans living in suburbs tend to consider themselves middle class, but most city-dwellers can't say the same,” Insider, May 6, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance/cities-versus-suburbs-cost-of-living-differences-expenses-2019-4.
 Hitt, “The Aptly Long History.”
 Hazel Rose and Markus Barry Schwartz, “Does Choice Mean Freedom and Well-Being?” Journal of Consumer Research 37, no. 2 (August 2010): 344. DOI: 10.1086/651242.
 Sheena S. Iyengar and Mark R. Lepper, “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no.3 (March 1999): 349. ISSN: 0022-3514.
 Ibid, 349, 350.
 Ibid, 350, 363.
 Bert Gambini, “Study: Many choices seems promising until you actually have to choose,” University at Buffalo, June 12, 2019, https://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2019/06/013.html.
 Temi Adebowale, “Ellen DeGeneres Has Some Questions About The Cheesecake Factory's Menu And We’re Cracking Up,” Delish, June 11, 2018, https://www.delish.com/food-news/a21270441/ellen-degeneres-cheesecake-factory-menu/.
 Jay Baer and Daniel Lemin, “There's a clever reason why The Cheesecake Factory's menu is so long,” Insider, December 7, 2018, https://www.businessinsider.com/why-the-cheesecake-factory-menu-is-so-long-2018-10.
Adebowale, Temi. “Ellen DeGeneres Has Some Questions About The Cheesecake Factory's Menu And We’re Cracking Up.” Delish. June 11, 2018. https://www.delish.com/food-news/a21270441/ellen-degeneres-cheesecake-factory-menu/. Baer, Jay and Daniel Lemin. “There's a clever reason why The Cheesecake Factory's menu is so long.” Insider. December 7, 2018. https://www.businessinsider.com/why-the-cheesecake-factory-menu-is-so-long-2018-10. Biltekoff, Charlotte. “Critical Nutrition Studies.” In The Oxford Handbook of Food History, edited by Jeffrey M. Pilcher, 172-190. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Feinstein, Paul and Madison Troyer. “50 most popular chain restaurants in America.” Stacker. May 10, 2022. https://stacker.com/food-drink/50-most-popular-chain-restaurants-america?page=4. Fulton, Wil. “Why Cheesecake Factory's Menu Is So Damn Big, According to Its Founder.” Thrillist. October 19, 2018. https://www.thrillist.com/eat/nation/cheesecake-factory-menu-explained. Gambini, Bert. “Study: Many Choices Seems Promising Until You Actually Have to Choose.” University at Buffalo. June 12, 2019. https://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2019/06/013.html. Hitt, Caitlyn. “The Aptly Long History of The Cheesecake Factory.” Thrillist. August 18, 2020. https://www.thrillist.com/news/nation/history-of-the-cheesecake-factory. Hoffower, Hillary. “Americans living in suburbs tend to consider themselves middle class, but most city-dwellers can't say the same.” Insider. May 6, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/personal-finance/cities-versus-suburbs-cost-of-living-differences-expenses-2019-4. Iyengar, Sheena S. and Mark R. Lepper. “Rethinking the Value of Choice: A Cultural Perspective on Intrinsic Motivation.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, no.3 (March 1999): 349-366. ISSN: 0022-3514. Knoblauch, Max. “This Twitter thread explains how Cheesecake Factory became the weirdest restaurant on earth.” Mashable. November 17, 2017. https://mashable.com/article/cheesecake-factory-history-twitter-thread. Rose, Hazel and Markus Barry Schwartz. “Does Choice Mean Freedom and Well-Being?” Journal of Consumer Research 37, no. 2 (August 2010): 344-355. DOI: 10.1086/651242. Ruggless, Ron. “2017 Golden Chain Award winner: David Overton.” Nation’s Restaurant News. October 1, 2017. https://www.nrn.com/people/2017-golden-chain-award-winner-david-overton. Tanzer, Myles. “Drake Revealed His Love Of The Cheesecake Factory on VIEWS.” Fader. April 29, 2016. https://www.thefader.com/2016/04/29/drake-cheesecake-factory-childs-play-views. The Cheesecake Factory. “Our Menu.” Accessed December 5, 2022. https://www.thecheesecakefactory.com/menu.
Image 1: Krieger, Max. The Cheesecake Factory. Photo. Twitter. November 16, 2017. https://twitter.com/MaxKriegerVG/status/931377308505690112?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E931377308505690112%7Ctwgr%5E7add49c749c9d8ebd01fd3560f639807d9d93545%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fmashable.com%2Farticle%2Fcheesecake-factory-history-twitter-thread. Image 2:Miller, Zoe. The Cheesecake Factory Menu. Photo. Insider. November 9, 2020. https://www.insider.com/the-cheesecake-factory-fun-facts-2018-11.
About the author
Elisabeth Hoekstra is the winner of the John Adams' Young Minds narrative nonfiction essay contest with her paper "The Cheesecake Factory and America's Desire for Choice". She has always been fascinated by the United States and its culture. She has been on exchange to the University of Virginia, which is where the started writing the essay that ultimately won the contest.
For more information about the Young Adams Institute, check out https://www.john-adams.nl/.