FASTER FOOD

It's 4 p.m. on a Tuesday at the Cheesecake Factory in Boston, and the restaurant's atmosphere is calm. After all, just a third of the 352 seats are full. The kitchen staff moves languidly, like a basketball team shooting its first layups. "Look at all these empty tables," says manager John Gordon. "In about a half hour they won't be." Gordon's venue is one of 75 in the Cheesecake empire; last year this location alone grossed $12.8 million--more than three times the sales of the average Outback Steakhouse. And when the dinner rush hits, the folks in his kitchen will be ready to produce 500 dishes an hour from a 19-page menu that lists 201 items.

The oversize menu, along with gargantuan portions, low prices and 30-odd flavors of its namesake dessert, have made the Cheesecake Factory one of the country's fastest-growing restaurant chains. Sales are rising 20 percent annually, and its stock has nearly doubled in three years. Lately, execs have talked of building 200 restaurants from coast to coast. To execute this successful formula requires a production system that's as finely tuned as Toyota's. Despite the chain's long lines, pros say Cheesecake's system functions unusually well. "They've evolved with this highly complex menu combined with a highly efficient kitchen," says Dennis Lombardi of Technomic Inc., a food-service consulting firm. "They're somewhat intimidating to the industry." To see how today's hottest restaurant chain boosts productivity, ENTERPRISE spent a dinner shift inside its Boston kitchen.

The chain's high-tech approach begins at the front door. Like many low-priced casual chains, Cheesecake doesn't accept reservations, so on weekends the wait for a table routinely exceeds two hours. But a PC tracks "table turns" and forecasts wait times, helping to ensure that when a party of four asks how long they'll have to hang out, the staff's answer is accurate. On a screen behind the counter, tables flash red when the computer expects them to open, so hosts can "stage" guests to be ready for seating. The chain was among the first to give patrons pagers so they could shop while waiting for a table, and soon its hosts may institute a new system: calling guests' cell phones when a table frees up.

Back in the kitchen--a 70-foot-long alley of stainless steel--more computers automatically route customer orders to seven different cooking stations: an order of Crispy Crab Wontons prints out at the deep fryer, while Jamaican Black Pepper Shrimp goes directly to saute. Even on slow nights each station is manned by two cooks. They're surrounded by bins of sauces and garnishes, and below are refrigerated drawers holding meats and produce. When supplies run low, a separate "prep" staff in another kitchen restocks them.

Across a counter from the cooking line, an "expediter" wearing a headset and holding a grease pencil shuffles through menu tickets. He directs cooks to "balance" each table's orders, so that a steak that takes 17 minutes and an angel hair pasta that takes three minutes are finished at the same time. He keeps an eye on ticket times, and tonight they're doing well: even at 6:30, with all tables full, the slowest order is complete 14 minutes after patrons placed it. Behind the expediter lurk kitchen managers, who inspect dishes and scan the cooking line, watching for "hot spots" or "bail situations," in which overwhelmed cooks require assistance.

Competing restaurants use many of the same techniques, but industry consultants say --few combine them as effectively. Even successful chains like Outback Steakhouse or PF Chang's China Bistro don't deal with nearly as much complexity, since most of their offerings are cooked on grills and woks, respectively. "When you have that big volume, you really have to coordinate exceptionally well to make everything come out right," says New York restaurant consultant Malcolm Knapp. Cheesecake "was early on using a lot of technologies because they had to." The chain sells a lot of food, so it can afford larger teams of managers to maintain order; it also pays enough (cooks can earn $15 an hour with full benefits) to hire staff who have more experience than competitors. General managers like Gordon, 40, a Johnson & Wales grad who's been at the Cheesecake Factory for nine years, get a leased BMW; most earn six-figure pay and stock options that have turned some into millionaires.

As the kitchen buzzes during the height of the dinner rush, you can't help wondering: couldn't this system be made simpler? Swarthmore College professor Barry Schwartz, the author of "The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less," says that while Cheesecake's oversize menu may seem appealing, having so many choices probably detracts from the average customer's experience. "It creates an agonizing decision," says Schwartz, who's eaten at the chain once and found it "mediocre." Schwartz theorizes a Cheesecake Factory with just one quarter of its best menu offerings "will do even better," because the kitchen operation won't be so complicated. In fact, the company says it experimented with smaller restaurants offering one third fewer items; managers shelved the idea because they worried customers would miss their favorite dishes.

At the Boston restaurant, manager Gordon admits life might be a little simpler without the $25 Appetizer Favorites platter, a sampling of eight items (from Avocado Eggrolls to Buffalo Blasts) that can be a pain to coordinate. But customers love it--and by late evening, with 16 groups of diners waiting for a table, the Cheesecake team aims to do whatever it takes to keep them lining up for more.