Two Companies Share a Piece of Cheesecake

The popular Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain divides its work between two California shops.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

Two California-based woodworking shops, Aspen Interiors and Pacific Westline Inc., share the work generated by Rick McCormack, who is the designer for the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain. Aspen Interiors is located in Brea and Pacific Westline is in Anaheim. Each shop has its own story to tell about how this important client (the millwork alone for one new Cheesecake Factory can gross $1 million) fits into its business as a whole.

Duncan Lawrie, project manager for Aspen Interiors, says that his shop has been building Cheesecake Factories for almost eight years. About two years into the relationship, business increased to the point where Aspen needed to double its work force, bringing the total number of employees to 22. Today Aspen Interiors employs 30 people.

“All of the employees at Aspen Interiors are union workers. When we needed to add so many people to our team, we let it be known that we were looking for good hands-on people. All of those people assimilated into our crew and the expansion worked out very well,” says Lawrie.

Pacific Westline and Aspen Interiors shared work on the Grand Lux Cafe in Las Vegas, NV. Aspen Interiors did the doors, mirror frames and crown mouldings for the buffet area; Pacific Westline did the Honduras mahogany casework, granite tops and the brass, stainless steel and glass sneeze guards.  

Another change generated at Aspen Interiors by the additional workload from the Cheesecake Factory was the addition of CAD software for drafting. “This change was essential for us to be able to live up to our reputation of never missing a promised completion date,” Lawrie says. “But I personally wish that they still did the drafting by hand. I am just an old salt, and that is what I am used to.”

Lawrie says that 75 percent of Aspen’s business comes from the Cheesecake Factory. “The schedule is almost non-stop, back-to-back Cheesecake Factory. Since we have taken them on as a client, it has been very important to be sure that the work done in our 18,000-square-foot facility is well coordinated,” he says.

Lawrie does all the initial field measuring for the Cheesecake Factories assigned to Aspen Interiors. After work begins in the shop, he returns to the site with “footprints” of the fixtures, which are fastened to the floor. When the tile setters are ready to install the flooring, they work around these footprints. Lawrie makes a third trip to the site to oversee installation. Throughout this process, he says he works closely with other suppliers involved with the project. He tries to keep ahead of them and feed them information as his work progresses.

Although all Cheesecake Factories have a similar look and atmosphere, the details for each one make every installation a custom piece of work. There are occasional situations where one piece, like a hostess stand, might be similar enough to one previously specified that the original drawing can be re-used with slight modifications. However, each piece is milled and fabricated as an individual unit. Aspen Interiors does not use any CNC machinery. Lawrie says that the shop’s equipment falls into the basic categories of shapers, table saws, panel saws and hand tools and that he expects that it will stay that way for a long time.

During 2000, Aspen Interiors worked on four new Cheesecake Factory installations, Lawrie says, estimating that the shop usually averages about six a year. Other customers find Aspen Interiors by word-of-mouth and include primarily commercial clients like restaurants, country clubs and bars. The company also gets occasional subcontract work from other shops. Lawrie says that Aspen Interiors usually can project about six months ahead its time-table for Cheesecake Factory jobs and works with other clients to fit their requests into the schedule.

“We find that it is important to be honest with people about how long it might take to fit them into our existing schedule and not take on more than we can handle,” he says. “At the same time, it is good to have a fistful of different projects and not have all of our eggs in one basket.”

Dan MacLeith of Pacific Westline has been working with Rick McCormack for the past 15 years and has been building Cheesecake Factories for the past seven years. The company hired its first full-time employee in 1978. Today the workforce is 105; 65 are woodworkers.

The Cheesecake Factory restaurant in Irvine, CA, has a bakery area that features cherry hardwood, finished with a dye and stain coloring followed by a satin clear urethane. The bar soffit in the background is constructed of hand-shaped micro-cellular foam with a gilded copper leaf finish. The job was done by Pacific Westline and included the hanging polished copper, brushed stainless steel and heavy glass shelves.  

The company’s focus has gradually evolved to restaurants and other clients that require mixed-media products, MacLeith says. Its facility spans 64,000 square feet, with the millwork division covering 34,000 square feet. Last year, the company grossed $13 million.

MacLeith calls the millwork division “the core of the company.” Six years ago a metalwork division was added, and the company has had an upholstery division since 1996. Most recently it added a stonework division and a general construction division. “We can now offer to build a restaurant from the ground up,” he says.

An excellent example of the variety of products that Pacific Westline can deliver isthe Grand Lux Cafe inside the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas, NV. (Grand Lux Cafe is another concept of The Cheesecake Factory, its parent company.) The restaurant covers 19,000 square feet and includes a hostess station, cocktail bar and buffet that incorporates millwork, Italian glass mosaics, stainless steel, stone, upholstery and glass. This large project also was shared with Aspen Interiors, which contributed on the millwork end.

MacLeith says that a client like The Cheesecake Factory has a predictable life cycle that needs to be observed and anticipated. When such a restaurant chain starts to catch on, he says, there is the potential for significant building. Then there is a phase of pulling back, and expansions slow down. About the same time, however, the original facilities need to be remodeled. Next comes a second building stage.

The general state of the economy also can impact a restaurant chain’s building requirements. Currently the majority of Pacific Westline’s work comes from repeat business. MacLeith says that economic conditions in the coming months might create the need to market its services to potential new customers.

Pacific Westline has a carefully calculated way of doing business, according to MacLeith says. “Our products are engineered to 132-inch and all decisions about how an item is built are made before it reaches the shop floor. Most shops are organized on the premise of sequential thinking,” he says. “For example, in most shops if a cabinet is to be built, the first step would be the box, followed by the top, doors and drawers. In our shop, we take a simultaneous approach, engineering the whole piece all at once. Then all of the individual elements of the piece are distributed to our various divisions to be manufactured at the same time.

“We find that this approach saves us a great deal of time in manufacturing and vastly increases our accuracy,” he adds. “In addition, if you were to visit our facility, you would notice that although there is a great deal going on, there is no chaos.”

Pacific Westline shares Aspen Interior’s approach to woodworking equipment. It uses basic table saws, shapers, planers and hand tools, MacLeith says. It invested in CNC equipment for the stone division, but doesn’t feel that CNC equipment is necessary for the millwork it does.

Unlike Aspen Interiors, MacLeith’s engineers draw everything free-hand instead of using CAD software. The current engineers started out as cabinetmakers with the company and were trained on the job for their engineering positions. MacLeith, who runs the engineering department, believes that an excellent engineer has a special gift that allows him to think “outside the box” and transform a client’s ideas into a drawing and, ultimately, into the product itself.

Pacific Westline did The Cheesecake Factory in Caeser’s Palace Forum Shops in Las Vegas, NV. The entrance features a serpentine bar with a granite top, cherry hardwood stile-and-rail bar die with inset panels of custom etched and colored bronze, and uplit glass panels.  

For The Cheesecake Factory, working with these two shops almost exclusively has been a good strategy. Two people work in tandem to solicit the bids and follow the work from start to finish for the restaurant: Rick Vaughn, vice president in charge of construction and development for The Cheesecake Factory, and Steve Parker, senior vice president for Timark-Raygal, the restaurant chain’s purchasing and design company.

Vaughn says he receives an average of three inquiries a month from other custom millworkers who are hoping to land a contract from this prolific client. Yet Vaughn and Parker consistently give the bids to Aspen Interiors and Pacific Westline. Both Vaughn and Parker have a long history with Aspen Interiors and Pacific Westline, going back to the 1970s. So they know what they can expect from them in terms of product quality.

In addition, Vaughn says that he believes a shop needs to have a minimum of 50,000 square feet in space in order to bid competitively and be able to handle The Cheesecake Factory work. “A shop needs to be large enough to handle multiple tasks or it will not be able to deliver the end product at an acceptable price nor in a timely manner,” he says.

When The Cheesecake Factory was building new restaurants on the East Coast, Vaughn says he solicited bids from local companies but turned them down because they were too high. “Aspen Interiors and Pacific Westline can do the work in California and ship it to the East Coast for a better price than any East Coast competitor that we have seen so far,” he says. “Also, when you start a relationship with a new company, you need to take into account that there will be a learning curve that will have an impact on the bottom line.”

Parker says that once a project gets started, the revisions can come daily and it is an advantage for him to be dealing with West Coast neighbors (the restaurant chain is headquartered in Calabasas Hills, CA). “It is such a comfort to be able to get in the car, drive across town and deal directly with the people who need to make the changes,” he says.

Parker projects that for the next year at least, Aspen Interiors and Pacific Westline should be able to satisfy the expansion demands of The Cheesecake Factory. “It is our goal to maintain an expansion rate of 25 percent each year,” he says. “After next year, we might need to take on another company to keep up with the pace.”

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