How Cheddar’s Expanded Its Scratch Concept Into Cocktails

Making every item from scratch requires a big kitchen and a large, well-trained staff. It’s a major undertaking for a single restaurant, never mind a chain that now exceeds 150 locations.

But Cheddar’s is all about scratch cooking, a theme that’s helped the casual American dining chain grow rapidly in recent years. In fact, this past July, the Irving, TX-based company completed a rebranding from Cheddar’s Casual Café to Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen among its corporate locations.

How does Cheddar’s manage all the chopping, whisking, sautéing, stirring and other preparation required with mixing up dishes and drinks from scratch?

“We commit to it,” says chef Robert Pesch, vice president of culinary research and development. “It’s not the easiest way to do it, but we are defined by our willingness to commit to [scratch cooking] by putting the right amount of staff behind it.”

For instance, total staff at any given location can reach 200, twice the number of cooks in most restaurants, Pesch says. The kitchens in Cheddar’s restaurants can span more than 3,500 ft.

A Fresh Start

The first Cheddar’s was opened in 1979 in Arlington, TX, by Aubrey Good and Doug Rogers. The scratch-based food menu and beverage program featured fresh ingredients and simple, flavorful cocktails customizable to order.

By 1995 Cheddar’s had grown to 10 locations, but expansion began accelerating after private equity investment from Brazos Private Equity Partners in 2003. Cheddar’s was then acquired by Oak Investment Partners and L Catterton in 2006.

Today, the brand has grown to 164 company-owned and franchised locations in 29 states. Cheddar’s in January 2017 completed the acquisition of 44 restaurant locations from Greer Cos., the chain’s largest franchisee.

Cheddar’s has been recognized for its commitment to scratch cooking and service. Consumer Reports named Cheddar’s top overall in the Pub Style or Grill Category in its two restaurant surveys in 2009 and 2012. Most recently, the Editorial and Advisory Council at FARE honored Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen as a 2016 Leader in Foodservice.

Pesch, who holds degrees in culinary arts and hospitality management from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY, started at Cheddar’s as executive chef in 2011. He’s been in his current role since 2014.

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Cocktails From Scratch

The bar represents over 10% of Cheddars’ overall sales, Pesch says. For a chain centered on scratch cooking, it makes sense that the beverage program focuses on craft cocktails.

A typical location’s bar has its own space with 16 to 22 seats. “It serves as the first impression for many of our guests,” Pesch says. Since most locations have lines for tables on busy nights, the bar becomes a key business area where people have drinks while they’re waiting.

That means the bartenders—two to three behind the bar on busy nights—must be efficient and get drinks to waiting guests quickly. The cocktails are naturally made from scratch, but Cheddar’s does not serve many intricate concotions that require extensive preparation, or call for more than a few ingredients.

“Any cocktail we develop, we have to be conscientious of about the number of steps and ingredients that go into it,” Pesch says. “We have to think about that first.”

The top-selling cocktail is the Painkiller ($6.99); Cheddar’s sells millions of them each year, Pesch notes. The Painkiller is made with Pusser’s rum, cream of coconut, pineapple juice and orange juice.

Part of the appeal is the Painkiller’s appearance. A toasted coconut rim, dusting of nutmeg on top and a fresh pineapple wedge garnish gives the cocktail a decadent look that attracts attention and generates me-too orders, Pesch says.

He is planning to offer a seasonal Watermelon Margarita, served with a giant piece of watermelon, for warmer weather. “These drinks have the look and feel of something made from scratch,” says Pesch.

Sharing garnishes also helps efficiency. For instance, the Cheddar’s Pina Colada, made with Appleton Estate Signature Blend rum, fruit puree, a splash of sweet and sour, topped with Myers’s Original Dark rum, uses the same pineapple and toasted coconut rim garnish as The Painkiller.

Another popular cocktail is the Texas Frozen Swirl ($4.79). This is a chilled version of the brand’s Texas Margarita, made with gold tequila and liqueur and swirled with a guest’s choice of strawberry or Sangria. “The swirl aspect allows us to make different drinks to different orders,” Pesch says.

Many of Cheddar’s drinks are Margaritas, which helps bartenders deal with the restaurants’ high-volume pace. “You take a platform like the Margarita, and you can go many different ways from there,” explains Pesch.

One offshoot is the Skinny Margarita ($4.99). Made with Sauza Gold tequila and Cheddar’s Skinny Agave Sour, it weighs in at 195 calories. The calorie count is listed on all Cheddar’s menu items, highlighting the health benefits of fresh ingredients.

This past fall Cheddar’s added the Presidente Sangria cocktail, with strawberries, lemons, limes and oranges shaken with Beso del Sol sangria, Presidente brandy and sweet-and-sour mix.

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“We commit” to scratch cooking, says chef Robert Pesch, vice president of culinary research and development. “It’s not the easiest way to do it, but we are defined by our willingness to commit to [scratch cooking] by putting the right amount of staff behind it.”

Eye On Staff Education

Because service is a key part of the Cheddar’s experience, the chain asks a lot of its employees. Servers and bartenders go through extensive and continuous training.

All bartenders must be fully trained and certified in all aspects of the front of the house before they can work behind the bar, Pesch says. Training for bartenders takes several weeks and includes a thorough course focused on the basics of the beverage menu.

Just as when new chefs learn how dishes should look and taste, Cheddar’s bartenders study the flavors and designs of all the cocktails. The program also emphasizes speed and efficiency, along with accuracy to ensure drink consistency.

Busy staffers rely on bar instruments and technology such as jiggers, shaker tins and blenders, as they push through waves of batches of orders. “We use measuring devices for every cocktail,” says Pesch.

Cheddar’s ensures that bar employees are remaining accurate through periodic checks during work hours, followed by retraining if necessary.

The bartender education also stresses social skills. “Personality is a big piece of being a bartender,” says Pesch. “How well can you make drinks while interacting with guests?” The best bartenders can maintain dialog and hospitality with guests while mixing up cocktails, which Cheddar’s stresses during its training.

Balancing The Beer List

While Cheddar’s emphasizes its craft cocktails, the chain also aims to provide options for beer drinkers. Every location has three beer taps. Two of these must be big brand beers, such as Budweiser, Bud Light, Blue Moon, etc. The other tap handle can be chosen by that location, though the corporate office has to approve the pick.

This third beer is often a local craft offering, though that’s not always the case. Cheddar’s locations in Texas commonly serve Dos Equis on the third tap, for instance.

“As big as craft beer has become, sometimes it’s just good to have whatever sells best,” says Pesch.

Cheddar’s has similar rules for beer bottles: Every location carries eight to nine options that are mandated to include the big-brand brews. After those required bottles, locations can stock three to four more of whatever they like, with corporate approval.

This gives each site the ability to carry local, craft or more name-brand beers that appeal to wider audiences.

Approachable Wine Selection

Cheddar’s maintains a small wine list with about 11 wines at each location. The menu includes recognizable varietals at good values, Pesch says, your cabernets, merlots, pinot grigios, pinot noirs, and chardonnays priced from $5.49 to $7.99 a glass. Cheddar’s will offer an entry-level varietal, plus a premium option for the diner who wants to elevate their experience.

Testing new products is common within the wine program. Pesch will put a new style or varietal on the menu and then gauge customer reaction. “We let the guests tell us what they want,” he says.

Suggested pairings include the usual suspects. When Cheddar’s recently launched a new 20-oz. rib eye, the marketing team made sure to depict the steak alongside a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Severs also know to nudge guests towards this reliable red wine/heavy meat combo.

Cheddar’s is also in the process of launching a new program that will allow for bigger wine pours. In addition to the standard glass portion, the chain will also offer the glass-and-a-half pours that more restaurants are promoting now, Pesch says.

Cheddar’s is working on a broader program for recommending food and drink pairings. For now, the chain relies on the staff, who are trained to suggest beverages that will complement the meals.

There are natural pairings based on sharing ingredients across the kitchen and bar. For example, Cheddar’s garnishes its Pina Colada ($7.29) with the same grilled pineapple found in its Signature Chicken and Shrimp Salad, making the two items a clear match.

The Sweet Heat Chicken & Shrimp ($8.99), chicken breast with grilled shrimp, glazed with mango chili sauce over ginger rice, pairs well with anything sweet and spicy. Servers often suggest pairing the dish with the Ruby Red Fusion Punch, which mixes Deep Eddy Ruby Red grapefruit vodka, X-Rated Fusion liqueur, pineapple juice, sweet-and-sour mix and a splash of grenadine.

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The Signature Chicken and Shrimp Salad uses the same grilled pineapple found in the Cheddar’s Pina Colada, making the two items a solid food pairing.

Emphasis On Premium Ingredients

Cheddar’s added the Ruby Red Fusion Punch ($6.79) to the beverage menu this past fall. The name is meant to call attention to the core spirit ingredient, Deep Eddy Ruby Red grapefruit vodka.

As more guests at Cheddar’s seek premium beverages, the chain is purposely pointing out its top-shelf brands.

Coming through the R&D pipeline is the Knob Creek Smash: a take on the classic cocktail using the popular whiskey brand. “We want to make sure we call out those brands,” Pesch says.

After all, guests are typically willing to pay more when they know they are getting higher-quality spirits. “The spirits industry has done such a good job of defining itself as premium, which helps us,” Pesch says.

Kyle Swartz is managing editor of Cheers magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com or @kswartzz on Twitter. Read his recent piece 7 Factors Driving Spirits Sales In 2017.

 

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