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?

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