Saturday, September 27, 2008

Cheesecake Factory Curbside-To-Go a Farce

After a week straight of preparing meals for the family, every mom needs a break. Since we never seem to have a good time dining out with the kids (especially at dinner), I thought we'd try to replicate the in-restaurant experience at The Cheesecake Factory by using their "Curbside-To-Go" service (from the Natick, MA area of their web site):

Enjoying a restaurant meal in the comfort of our home after the kids have gone to bed sounded great, especially on a rainy Saturday evening.

At 5:55 PM, I called the restaurant and was left on hold for 5 minutes. At 6:00 PM I placed my order (a pasta dish, a salad, and a request for some whole wheat bread.) I was told it would be ready in "20 to 25 minutes." They even asked me the color and make of my car which inspired confidence that they would be cheerfully delivering the food to my car- curbside. I brought my 3 year old along for the ride and thought "no problem, we'll just be sitting in the car."

When I arrived at the restaurant (15 minutes after I ordered), the first problem I encountered was that all 5 of the marked curbside spaces were taken. None of the cars in the spaces had drivers sitting in them, which seemed strange for spaces that were intended for curbside delivery. To make matters worse, there is construction going on adjacent to this restaurant so the parking situation is a mess. I found a non-disruptive spot to temporarily stop the car and placed a call to let them know I was there in hopes that they'd bring the food out to me and I'd not need to find a spot. Once again, I was on hold for 5 minutes and when someone finally took my call, they took my name and said "I'll tell the Bakery you're here." This didn't inspire confidence that someone would actually be bringing out my food so I began to get a little worried.

Mercifully, a designated Curbside-To-Go space opened up and I pulled in and waited for another 10 minutes. Not once while I was sitting there did I see a curbside delivery occur. Since I didn't want to wait another 5 minutes on hold (and get my food spat upon) I decided to go inside and track down our food. I'm not too happy about this. I left the house thinking that we would be getting food delivered to us, so we weren't dressed for going out. Did I mention it was raining? At any rate, in pile the Clampetts (us) wandering around the restaurant amongst waiting patrons and find our way to the Bakery counter. I ask "Is this where I go when my curbside delivery isn't occurring?" She asks what my name is and goes off to hunt down my food. She eventually comes back 5 minutes later with our food, rings us up and we're on our way (35 minutes after I phoned in my order.)

I'm pretty disappointed with the whole exchange and fuming at this point. It seems to me that the moment you have to step out of your car, curbside delivery has failed. It is the take-out equivalent of walking back to the kitchen to ask where your food is. And it is not so much that you have to get out of your car; it is that you didn't *plan* on having to get out of your car and further, that you feel like every 5 minutes that goes by your food is getting colder and colder.

Indeed by the time we sat down to eat at home, my pasta was quite cold. And the salad dressing wasn't mixed in with the salad. A valid culinary technique to avoid soggy lettuce, but ultimately the food we ate was not comparable to what you get when you dine-in.

I don't fault any of the servers that I interacted with. It seems to me that the restaurant is fundamentally ill-equipped to be offering curbside service. And what stings is that I paid $30 for a lousy takeout meal. That was not the deal.

As a former CAKE shareholder (I bought in 2002 at a split adjusted price of $22 and sold at $29 in 2006, a modest 28% return over 4 years for a 6% annual rate of return) I recall hearing on earnings calls that the company was struggling to increase same store sales because their restaurants were booked to capacity during peak hours. They felt they could increase same store sales with curbside to go since their kitchen capacity was larger than their seating capacity. I don't think this strategy has worked. Look at their performance over the last couple of years in this chart. Their shares have fallen from $30 to around $15. This decline is surely due to other macro effects besides the performance of its curbside program, but I wonder whether there might be poor execution in a number of other areas in the restaurant?

Back to the systematic problems I observed:

The phone line that is supposedly dedicated to curbside orders goes to some general switchboard that in turn gets routed to the Bakery (the place where dine-in cheesecake orders are prepared and to-go counter orders are taken). There needs to be a dedicated person taking phone calls for curbside orders.

So many restaurants are trying to do this curbside thing- but the majority fail. The only restaurant I've seen do it right is Pei Wei. When you arrive at Pei Wei, there is a desk set up right near the curbside parking area and as soon as you arrive someone comes to your car and acknowledges you've arrived, takes your credit card and tells you how much longer it is going to be. So well done! The Cheesecake Factory needs to set up a dedicated curbside desk.

The entire time I was at the restaurant last night, I didn't see a curbside order fulfilled. I didn't see a single employee outside of the restaurant! When you arrive and observe this, you're left with low confidence that your order will be delivered to you. And you're left feeling that the longer you wait, the colder your food is going to get. They need a person running food between the kitchen and the curbside desk so that the curbside desk remains attended at all times.

It would seem that these needs require some alterations to the restaurant layout. What is surprising is that this location has only been open for a year- and the curbside program has been in place from Day 1! I can accept that older locations built before the idea of curbside delivery existed and are set deeply within a Mall don't work well logistically for curbside, but this restaurant is brand new. The company needs to incorporate curbside into their architecture if they're serious about it.

Finally, the employees taking orders need to be empowered to remedy bad service on the spot with no escalation to a manager needed. A free slice of cheesecake or a gift certificate for a future visit (even for a modest denomination) would have gone a long way towards acknowledging that the service wasn't up to standards that night.

I realize this is an excessive rant for the mediocre service I received. But what bothers me is that the company is selling something that it did not deliver that night- nor will it ever deliver until it makes changes in the way it runs the curbside program. When a company repeatedly advertises something it consistently does not deliver, I consider it fraudulent. Looking back at their description of the way the curbside program works, they told me it would "Be as Easy as 1-2-3!" (it wasn't.) They told me I could call their Curbside Pick-up Line (there is no such thing, the number is a general restaurant number). They told me my food would be delivered right to me car and I'd be on my way (didn't happen either.)

The final kick in the pants? Remember that bread we requested? Although it was noted on our receipt, it was not in the bag. Bungled! Talk about a little thing that diminished the experience.

What do you think of curbside service? Have you experienced similar? Are other restaurants doing this better than The Cheesecake Factory -or- is this problem common across all restaurants?

cc: Cheesecake Factory Comments

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Product Review: 5 Days with the iPod touch 2G

When the first iPhone was released in the summer of 2007, an 8GB model cost $599. Industrious types sought to purchase an iPhone so that they could take advantage of all the iPhone had to offer outside of its cellular service and then promptly cancel service with AT&T. The people who went this route saw the iPhone as a next generation iPod, and liked it, but didn't want to be encumbered by a cellular contract with AT&T. For them, the iPhone minus AT&T service equaled an awesome iPod for $600.

Apple quickly recognized that some customers didn't necessarily want cellular service on their iPhone and created the iPod touch- essentially an iPhone minus the phone. The iPod touch was available in 8GB and 16GB models initially, and later a 32GB model. They were priced between $299 and $499, which represents a far better value to the folks mentioned above who paid full price for their iPhones and promptly cancelled their cellular plan.

Fast forward to this summer. Apple once again revamped their iPod touch lineup with some minor tweaks and reduced pricing (to between $239 - $399). Initially, I was disappointed with what Apple announced. To be honest, I was hoping for more in this update (like a $199 price point for the 16GB unit, GPS, and what the heck- some major announcement from Apple that they were entering the Voice over IP market). But after I saw a customer running our Cadence software on his iPhone I felt compelled to get in on the action. Enough of this goofy deliberating- pull the trigger already, right? I found a meager corporate discount available and placed my order for an 8GB unit.

My iPod touch arrived last Friday and I of course immediately busted it open and started playing with it. Deanna chastised me for not even acknowledging the FedEx driver's existence, but forgive me- I was just so pumped to crack the thing open, I wasn't focused on my manners! (sorry, FedEx driver)

I'd played with the iPhone and the iPod touch at the Apple store many times, but having my own was different because I could enter my user name and password in sites without worrying about forgetting to clear them out. More meaningfully, it gave me a chance to set up my Yahoo! Email to see how that worked out. I was initially suspicious of how this would work, because I don't pay for my Yahoo! Email on my PC, and on the PC if you don't pay for Email you can't check your Email with POP or IMAP accounts- you can only check it through Yahoo! web mail. However, on the iPod touch, Yahoo! Email configuration was a breeze- I just entered my user name and password and I was done. It syncs with what I do on Yahoo! web mail automatically and overall works really well! Nice.

Before I get too excited and go all "Apple Fanboy", I want to note that nobody reads more about Apple products without buying them than I do. I'm all over, and any other Apple mention that pops up in My Yahoo!, but I can always find a reason not to buy the product. "Wait until it comes out on Verizon," (for the iPhone) "I'll wait until it has a DVR," (for the AppleTV) and "I'll wait until the 24 inch screen is $999" (for the iMac) are just some of my favorites. I can find the fatal flaw in any Apple product. And believe me- there are flaws. iPhoto's lack of selective import has been a pet peeve of mine since we bought Deanna's iBook and since nobody is developing good photo management software for Macs other than Apple (unlike Google's excellent Picasa application for Windows) you're stuck until Apple decides to address the limitation.

But this situation, I feel, is more problematic in the computing world than in the consumer electronics world. Namely, I think the iPhone, iPod, and AppleTV are further ahead of their respective competition than Macs are ahead of PCs. The consumer electronics space is less defined; less, I don't know- what's the expression I'm looking for here?- "pounded on by millions of users to the point where it works really really well". These days, I assess usability in terms of how difficult it is to do something with one hand free and a baby in the other and against that metric I find my Windows PC easier to use than a Mac. But that's a story for another day (PC vs. Mac). Let's talk about the iPod touch...

What I like so far:
  • Works really really well out of the box. The thing synced seamlessly and easily with my existing iTunes library without incident, Wi-Fi setup was a breeze, Email setup was a snap and I was up and running in less than 5 minutes.

  • A laptop computer in your palm. It is amazing what you can do on this thing. Via Wi-Fi you can check your Email, browse the web, search YouTube and more.

  • The App store. Apple recognized that the device would be more compelling if they opened it up to developers. Consequently, we have customized iPhone/iPod touch "Apps" for Facebook, Twitter, Pandora, The New York Times, LinkedIn, AIM (*free* SMS text messages!), and games. Tons of games, including my favorite free one- Labyrinth. Using the iPhone accelerometer perfectly it simulates the old physical metal ball/wooden table game we had when we were kids. SO WELL DONE. You've gotta check it out. They even have several "leveling" Apps so you can use your iPod touch as a level for hanging pictures and what not. Silly, but interesting.

  • An innovative jukebox. Continuing the iPod's long legacy as a great music player, the iPod touch has two capabilities that have changed the way we listen to music. Since it is portable as all heck, I can easily connect it to our home stereo to serve up music.

    The new "Genius" feature in iTunes (released in iTunes 8.0 and iPhone/iPod touch firmware 2.1) intelligently picks songs on your device that are musically similar. Ask it to produce a Genius list for Coldplay's "Fix You"- you get U2's "City of Blinding Lights" and Audioslave's "Like a Stone". Not perfect matches, but if there was some technology that could truly "clone" Coldplay's amazing song "Fix You" it would be worth more than Apple as a company in my view (but I digress).

    Separately, but similarly, Pandora is also available on the iPod touch. Founded in 2000, Pandora's claim to fame is that they've assembled a Musical Genome for a boatload of songs and as a result they're able to pick songs similar to artists or songs that you already like. Ask it to find songs similar to "Fix You" and I get "Sullivan Street" by The Counting Crows and "In the Middle" by Mat Kearney. The Counting Crows I'd heard of- Mat Kearney not so much; musical discovery. What I love about Pandora is their Web 2.0 angle- they were quick to come out with a Facebook tie-in (if you're my friend you can see not only which stations I'm listening to but you can also pick up the variant of that station based on the thumbs-up/thumbs-down I've given that station (thanks to my friend Michelle Crandall for pointing that nuance out to me). Very cool. Further, they were quick to come out with an iPhone App which means that for free with an iPod touch you can download the Pandora Application in a matter of seconds and you're up and running this (from my "Fake Plastic Trees" Pandora station):

What I don't like so far:
  • Hand-feel. Although the machine is impossibly thin and incredibly well designed visually, it is also very slippery in my hands. There's a free golf App that simulates being at a driving range and I swear if I gave that my full effort I'd throw the iPod touch through a window. Also, I find it near impossible to type with two thumbs when the screen is in the upright position because the screen is too small for my thumbs; everything is just too close together. In the landscape position, I can type more easily but unfortunately some applications refuse to go into landscape mode. Painfully- the Mail application is one of them (which is painful because Email involves heavy typing).

  • Crashy crashy. Many of the applications, including the Safari web browser, crash. Frequently. But it's kind of interesting the way they crash- they just kind of disappear and return you to the main screen. For example, when I was considering using Yahoo! web mail's free text messaging capabilities (before I discovered I could do the same in AIM more easily) I tried going to and then clicking "New"->Text Message. But as soon as I click "New", Safari crashes:

  • Limited VPN capabilities. I found that I was unable to connect to my corporate network because my company doesn't use Cisco VPN, which is the only commercial VPN standard the iPhone supports. When I contacted my IT department about this, they flat-out refused to support the iPhone in any way because of "security issues". I don't know whether it is possible to connect with enough information (like the "Group Name" and "Secret") -or- whether it is truly impossible to connect to a Nortel VPN server with a Cisco VPN client. At any rate, all of the hype about the iPhone now supporting enterprise and Exchange is not quite useful, at least for me. I guess that's OK though- I'll keep my iPod touch as a completely fun-time device that allows me to connect to the web without getting dragged into work-related activities.
Overall, I'm happy with my purchase so far. For a little over $200 the iPod touch provides what I feel is an affordable supplement to your existing desktop/laptop computer and is likely to change the way you interact with your digital media and the Internet. I'm far less likely to undock my laptop after working hours since I can easily check my Email, Facebook, and Twitter with just a few taps. Further, the music serving capabilities alone are (perhaps) worth the price of admission. To call the iPod touch an "MP3 Player" is like calling your computer a "DVD Player"- there's just so much more it can do than play MP3s.

I'm mindful of my initial exuberance when we first purchased Deanna's iBook, much of which has waned. I'll follow up in a couple of weeks to describe some of the more unique things you can do with an iPod touch (more info on Pandora, driving directions that automatically identify your starting point and chart a course without printing the directions out, and free text messaging on AIM come to mind). At some point I'd also like to consider the debate of an "iPod touch plus a Verizon phone" vs. an iPhone.

If you found this review helpful and would like to buy this product on, you can follow this link to shop for this product and credit my Amazon Associates account with a percentage of your purchase:

Follow these links to learn more about the product from Apple or Amazon.

Further Reading:
I'm curious what you think of this? iPhone? iPod touch? Or none of the above?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Strangest Ad in the Sunday Paper

I cannot imagine somebody buying the product as a result of seeing this ad:

"Just nuke and eat!"
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