The Cheesecake Factory name has long been synonymous with decadent, indulgent menu items, but the Calabasas Hills, Calif.-based chain last August introduced a menu designed to promote the lighter side of its fare.
Dubbed the SkinnyLicious Menu, the nearly 50 offerings include an array of previously existing and newly minted small plates, entrées and cocktails, all containing less than 590 calories each.
“You’ve always been able to eat low calorie at The Cheesecake Factory, but I don’t think people always knew that,” said senior director of marketing and public relations Alethea Rowe. “By putting everything together on this SkinnyLicious Menu, we’ve really made it easy for people who are looking for low-calorie choices to find everything easily.”
Officials at The Cheesecake Factory say the company’s mission has always been to give their customers what they want. Until recently, that meant large portions and caloric indulgence across the menu. All that changed about a year ago when the 156-unit chain began seeing increased demand for health-focused dishes from a more calorie-conscious dining public.
Between the concept’s eponymous desserts and oversized entrées, vice president of culinary development Robert Okura said consumers were visiting The Cheesecake Factory only when they wanted to splurge, and the chain was missing out on other dining occasions due to negative health perceptions.
So the company decided to capture some of that lost market by doing what it does best: offering more choices.
“It was our obligation as a restaurant that has always offered more choices than you can potentially imagine to offer choices in this [healthful] area, as well,” he said.
A big part of the SkinnyLicious Menu’s development — which began in April 2011 — involved portion control, Okura said. But his team had to walk a fine line when it came to reducing the size of the concept’s notoriously generous offerings.
“We had to develop portion-controlled dishes that at the same time satisfied that Cheesecake Factory larger-than-life perception [for our customers] — dishes that would be a reduced portion from what’s on our regular menu, but large enough, if not more generous, than what you would expect to be served with a low-calorie dish,” he said.
To help overcome this challenge, Okura and his team mined the regular menu for items whose calorie counts already fit into the SkinnyLicious Menu’s parameters: 490 calories or less for appetizers and 590 calories or less for entrées.
They found that almost 20 of the 200-plus existing menu items could be used for the new project, and there were an additional 15 that could be repurposed with only slight modifications, Rowe said.
“Maybe it was a salad that got some low-calorie dressing, or it was a steak that was just an ounce less and came with vegetables instead of fries,” she said.
“They weren’t intended to be SkinnyLicious dishes or low-calorie dishes; they just happened to have the desired calorie count,” Okura noted. “Our seared ahi tataki salad, for example, is a very popular dish, and by virtue of its ingredients, it was very low calorie.
“It’s increased in sales slightly since going on the SkinnyLicious Menu,” he added.
When it came to developing the new items, Okura said the chain was committed to lower-calorie offerings that were “as delicious and craveable and memorable as anything else on the menu.”
To accomplish this, Okura’s team developed dishes with vegetables, fruits and herbs that offered naturally rich flavors, like a pear and endive salad with radicchio, arugula, butter lettuce, blue cheese, candied pecans, tomato and vinaigrette; and shrimp rolls with asparagus, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, rice noodles, green onion and cilantro.
“For the most part, if I’m watching my calories and I want to cut down on my fat, I’m going to accept that [the dish might taste like ‘diet food’]. It just comes with the territory,” Okura said. “But we did not want to settle for that.”
Datassential director Maeve Webster calls it a smart move.
“What The Cheesecake Factory has done is ideate against healthy items, focusing on flavor first,” she said. “They’ve taken the same kind of care with these items that they’ve taken with everything else, and they’ve developed a menu that nobody would have a problem ordering off of — you wouldn’t feel like you were sacrificing or compromising in order to eat healthy.”
The top-selling SkinnyLicious items are now among the most popular Cheesecake Factory offerings, including bite-sized crab cakes and a
“They’ve actually gone that extra distance,” Webster said. “It’s not just, ‘Here are a couple of entrées.’ It’s, ‘What is the entire meal experience going to be if you are going to try to make the right decisions?’”
That holistic approach has served the chain well so far, according to officials.
“The feedback that we’ve gotten has really been tremendous,” Rowe said. “Of course, there are still a lot of guests who want to come and not be concerned about calories, but that’s what’s great about our menu: You can indulge if you want to, or if you want to eat lower calorie, you can.”