By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The cold box itself is a frigid Cubist science-fiction study, a giant, white, rectangular space divided into a geometric maze by rectangular stacks of rectangular cartons. Enormous cooling fans drone steadily by the ceiling. It operates almost around the clock, and as many as 70,000 cartons a day are loaded out of this facility — half of them containing romaine.
Many of the cold-box staff are former fieldworkers — even though the job isn’t much better. The pay is about the same, and the work is also seasonal. Moreover, working eight hours a day in that temperature gives a lot of workers colds, flu and arthritis, says Pete Maturino, president of the union local that represents them.
My romaine head very likely arrived in the cold box less than 24 hours before it was placed in front of me in the form of salad. A refrigerated truck backed right up to a door built into the wall of the cold box, and was loaded in under an hour. The truck probably belonged to a small local company subcontracted by food-distribution giant Sysco to make the five-hour run down to Los Angeles. Sysco is the biggest food distributor in America, delivering everything from fresh romaine hearts to paper napkins to caviar and reaping sales of some $25 billion per year.
The subcontractor would have trucked my romaine head, snug in its carton with its indistinguishable brethren, down to a Sysco warehouse on the outskirts of Los Angeles. During the night shift, workers would have loaded the carton, along with dozens of other food-service items, onto a Sysco truck for delivery to restaurants around the city. Very likely by the morning of the day I am sitting down to lunch, a Sysco driver wheeled the romaine head from which it was made into the kitchen of the Beverly Hills Cheesecake Factory. ‰
Caesar salads are a local thing. In 1924, the story goes, Caesar Cardini, proprietor of Caesar’s Palace restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, ran low on ingredients for the July 4 holiday. In a burst of improvisational inspiration, he tossed together romaine leaves, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, a raw egg, Worcestershire, sourdough croutons and Parmesan cheese. The movie stars who came down from Hollywood for dinner loved it, and soon restaurants all over Los Angeles copied it. (Other claims to caesar include Beatriz Santini, who may or may not have made the salad first in Austria around 1918, then shared the recipe with her son Livio, who turned up at Cardini’s Tijuana restaurant and was spotted eating the salad in the kitchen by a wealthy customer who wanted one for herself.)
“The caesar is a traditional concept,” says Bob Okura, the Cheesecake Factory’s vice president of culinary development. Okura is a 25-year veteran of the food-service business who wears a white chef’s jacket in his office, deep inside the company’s grand but unmarked headquarters in an office park amid the rolling hills of Calabasas. “We think it’s best left in its simplest, most authentic presentation. We’ve just adapted the dressing.”
A full pound of romaine goes into each caesar, double what most restaurants use. “We do that deliberately so there’s enough to take home, so you can have the Cheesecake Factory experience in your home as well as in our restaurants,” says Okura sincerely.
The company uses a mixture of romaine leaves and hearts — even though, like most chefs, Okura believes that the hearts, crisper and sweeter than the leaves, are the choicest part of the head. “We found our guests don’t want all hearts,” he says. “People wanted to see green in their salad. We know it’s not the best thing, but they’re the boss.”
Intense research is a Cheesecake Factory hallmark. Okura and other executives may spend months, even years experimenting with a new dish at their Culinary Research and Development Center — an aggressively clean, full-blown restaurant kitchen adjoining Okura’s office. The chain’s whole menu is reviewed every six months or so, with as many as 20 items updated or replaced.
These are good days for restaurateurs. Thanks to the ever more hectic pace of urban life and the growing numbers of working women, Americans are getting more of their meals outside the home than ever before. Thirty years ago, consumers spent about 25 percent of their total food budget at restaurants and fast-food outlets. Today, that figure is about 49 percent. The restaurant industry has become California’s largest employer, with sales projected to rise this year to $45 billion.
Meanwhile, spurred by growing awareness of the health (and body-image) benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables, produce sales have also skyrocketed in recent years, especially in restaurants. The U.S. Agriculture Department estimates that produce sales in food-service establishments nearly tripled from 1987 to 1997, hitting a total of over $35 billion nationwide. Lettuce is one of the most consumed vegetables nationwide, along with tomatoes and potatoes.
The Cheesecake Factory, with its 1-pound salads, is riding this wave for all it’s worth. Considered part of the growing “fast casual” segment of the restaurant business — chains that combine McDonald’s predictability with Starbucks’ more bourgeois sensibilities — the company opened its first outlet in Beverly Hills in 1978, and by now operates dozens of restaurants in 23 states, with 14 more slated to open this year alone.
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