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Behind the Line: Not just desserts

The Cheesecake Factory balances increasing seafood prices

At the Cheesecake Factory, shrimp is one of the core seafood products that remain on the menu.  - Photo courtesy of The Cheesecake Factory
By Lauren Kramer
August 01, 2012

In years past, The Cheesecake Factory boasted a fresh fish program with a good selection of seafood that included farmed salmon, mahimahi, ahi, grouper/sea bass, Alaska halibut, swordfish, ono and catfish. These days, however, the chain with close to 170 restaurants across the country has cut back on its seafood purchases considerably, menuing mostly salmon, catfish, cod, shrimp, calamari and a little ahi.  

“Our seafood strategy started changing four to six years ago because of the escalated price per pound,” says Bob Okura, VP of culinary development. “We’re a casual-dining concept offering larger-than-average portions, and in order to maintain our menu price points we were forced to walk away from most of those species.”

Seafood portion sizes in the dinner entrées are 12 ounces, and Okura says the company refuses to compromise on that. “Guests aren’t coming to us for smaller portions, and now that seafood is priced at $15 per pound or higher, we can’t offer the portion sizes we want at that price point. It’s hard for us to go beyond a pricing structure of $30 per entrée on the menu, and as a result, we’re just not in a position to menu other seafood items.”

Situated at the higher end of the menu pricing structure, seafood represents less than half the menu selections at The Cheesecake Factory but is a strong financial performer. For example, 10 to 12 years ago the company sold a total of 1,062,000 orders of chicken teriyaki and crusted chicken romano, which generated $15 million in sales revenue. In the same period it sold a total of 707,000 orders of miso salmon and shrimp scampi, which generated $14.7 million. “Even though there were fewer of these two seafood items sold, their financial contributions were equally as strong as their two chicken counterparts,” Okura says.

In 2010, The Cheesecake Factory sold close to 14 million seafood dishes on a menu that contained more than 100 seafood items, ranging from appetizers to salads, entrées, pastas, sandwiches, burgers and tacos. Seafood menu item sales totaled $290.8 million, and the most popular seafood dish was farmed salmon, offered as salmon rolls, as an appetizer, as a grilled entrée and in the Skinnylicious™ menu that was rolled out six months ago. 

Seafood remains profitable, Okura adds. In terms of guest preferences it is perceived as being a more healthful option compared to other proteins. “I think the American dining public has been shifting more toward seafood than other proteins and the higher price of seafood doesn’t seem to stop that trend, so they must see some value in making those choices,” he says. 

The Cheesecake Factory’s biggest seafood supplier is Anderson Seafood in Anaheim, Calif., which supplies more than 20 restaurants in California and Nevada. To date, The Cheesecake Factory has not taken a firm stance on sourcing sustainable seafood. “We do what we can to support those kinds of global issues and concerns, but being a high-volume chain across the country, it’s not something we can afford to be fully committed to,” Okura says. “Our problem with sourcing sustainable, organic and locally grown products has been finding a resource that can supply us with the minimum quantities needed. But once we get into regional programs that might change.”

There’s been talk of a local fish-sourcing program in order to get a greater selection of seafood in the restaurants and offer it tableside. But there are still hurdles to overcome before that can happen. 

Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia 

August 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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