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One-on-One With The Cheesecake Factory’s Lisa McDowell

The Cheesecake Factory, the American award-winning casual dining restaurant, has finally made its much-anticipated debut in Lebanon! After months and months of waiting, TCF finally opened its doors on December 1st, 2015 in V Verdun.

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Having visited The Cheesecake Factory numerous times all over the United States throughout the years, I was thrilled to finally see it opening in Lebanon. So imagine my excitement when I found out that I would be interviewing the company’s Vice President of Global Development, Lisa McDowell.

I met this amazing lady right before opening night, as more than 250 permanent employees were gearing up to host a bevy of eager diners wanting to discover what The Cheesecake Factory was all about. What unfolds is a story about inspiration, passion, and a unique culinary experience only The Cheesecake Factory can provide.

 

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Carmel + Vanilla: Why is it important for the Cheesecake Factory to open in Beirut?

Lisa McDowel: You know we’ve been planning this since day one when we chose to come to the Middle East and one of the key cities was Beirut. I think the key here is that people like to gather, be social, and dine together. Food is all about celebrating and communicating and Lebanon likes to do that, right? You see families, big groups, youngsters, just basically a lot of unity, and that’s what the Cheesecake Factory does really well. We’re all about providing that right kind of atmosphere, from the beautiful building to the great food, finishing off with a great dessert, and not forgetting all the efforts of our fantastic servers. Our staff is here to host you and that’s what we do well. So to sum it up, it just feels like a natural fit for us to be here in Beirut.

C+V: What do you think the Overtons (original founders of The Cheesecake Factory) would feel now that their restaurant is all the way across the globe in Beirut?

LMD: You know I think they would be so proud of the fact that we held on to the quality and standards which they set forth. Their son, David, has been the pinnacle in our organization and he’s really driven in terms of quality, execution, follow-up, and the ‘why’ behind it everything we do. More importantly, the Overtons would respect how much we take care of our guests and how much we understand that purpose. They would be really proud because what they instilled and created years ago is still what we’re doing today, and we try our best to make them proud everyday.

 

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C+V: The Cheesecake Factory was named as one of Fortune magazine’s 100 best companies to work for, for the second consecutive year. Why do you think so?

LMD: Well it starts with that foundation that everybody likes to be proud of where they work. You like to proud of the product you serve, what you represent, the values you share with that company, and you continue to strive to take care of the people who take care of others.
So, for example, our servers take care of our guests. Our managers take care of the servers and staff, and as management, we take care of our managers. Those elements have been the foundation of our organization from day one; I just think that now we’re being recognized for it. I don’t think it’s anything different since the inception of the brand.

C+V: So, can we expect to see this award being granted to The Cheesecake Factory for a third year?

LMD: Oh I wouldn’t doubt it one bit. We would strive to only be that good and continue to be so.

C+V: Why is important for the Cheesecake Factory to have over 200 items on its menu?

LMD: It’s such a big menu, isn’t it? Well it’s this large because we understand the complexity of the fact that what we do is what makes us successful. So everybody sitting here tonight gets whatever they feel like: you can have something from our SkinnyLicious (low-cal) menu or something with a little Latin flair- nachos or tacos. I can have a pasta, a sandwich, a burger, or a steak- you name it! So there’s something for everyone here and that really is a big part of our success. Anybody can dine here and the best part is that you can dine the way you want; the portions are so generous that you could share, take home, or just eat what you want. This is the uniqueness of The Cheesecake Factory.

 

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C+V: What is you personal favorite dish?

LMD: I love the Cajun Chicken Littles (my personal favorite as well). I also love the Miso Salmon- which consists of a beautiful bed of fluffy white rice topped off with a miso glazed filet of salmon and some sake butter and finished it off with steamed snow peas. The whole combination is magical!

C+V: What can a customer expect on their first visit to the Cheesecake Factory?

LMD: Our mission is to make sure that you would have an amazing food, beverage, and dessert experience and that you would be in awe of your surroundings, from the architecture to the warm cozy environment- we want you to soak it all up. We want you to feel the positive energy and realize that this place a great space to gather. At the end of their first experience, we want people to say: ” I need to come back because I couldn’t take it all in the first time”.

C+V: Why is the lighting so dim at a the Cheesecake Factory?

LMD: We try to create an ambiance. There’s a science to our lighting strategy. We have lights for different settings; lunch, dusk, and dinner. Dinner is cozy, we like to see a warm glow on everyone’s face- enough for you to read and see your food, but one that creates an atmosphere that’s warm, cozy, and inviting. This makes it feel like the place to be for each individual table.

 

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C+V: In your opinion, is the customer always right?

LMD: We value and practice this. We always want to please the guest; it’s our number one goal because our guests come with expectations and we want to exceed them each and every time. So when you ask me ” are they right every time?”, I say they’re right in expecting what they expect and we should be able to honor and deliver that everyday.

C+V: How important is constant employee training for an international company and how do you keep it interesting to keep employees engaged?

LMD: You know you need a little bit of everything. The environment we have is unlike any other restaurant. Just now here in Beirut, we have over 280 servers. We brought 60 trainers and we have plenty of corporate support staff. We teach our employees how to do everything from scratch and then ask them to repeat what they’ve learned several times. Repetition will make you good at what you do and improve your craft. All our trainings are hands-on, side by side and you get to practice all the time. You read, study, and practice. And most importantly, you constantly get feedback.

C+V: What attracted you to The Cheescake Factory?

LMD: It’s the energy, this unique opportunity that allows me to part of this chain, where you see people become a part of a second family, the Cheesecake Family. The energy in the restaurant business is very dynamic. It’s never 9 to 5, you never watch the clock. Time goes by so fast and you go ‘where’s my day gone?’. There are so many entities, because you deal with people, products, as well as the every day life of a guest, so it’s never boring.
I’ve been in this business for so long- particularly at the Cheesecake Factory. Being here allows me to grow with the world in a sense that if trends/foods/you name it change, The Cheesecake Factory will do it too. We just never sit around and watch opportunities go by. We never stay stagnant. If you work in that kind of dynamic, where you continue to learn and grow, that’s what makes it worthwhile and keeps it challenging.

 

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C+V: Describe the Cheesecake Factory in just three words.

LMD: It is magical. You can’t get it anywhere else. You can’t replicate it; it simply cannot happen. It just comes together: the food, the ambiance, and the smiling guests.
You know we’ve got over 40 signature desserts. What other restaurant can you think off that has this many? Just seeing that Cheesecake fridge- I don’t know what else can put a smile on your face!
Then just looking at the menu and all those ingredients required to make all those items come together, and then not to mention our specialty cocktails which are made from scratch. All I can say is that the Cheesecake Factory is a well-orchestrated restaurant that brings the magic!

The Cheesecake Factory is located at V Verdun, Verdun. It’s the most wonderful time of the year to grab all your family and celebrate at this “magical” place!