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Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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Cheesecake Factory, IBM Team Up To Crack The Code Of Customer Bliss

Feb 27, 2013
Originally published on February 27, 2013 11:17 am

Consider the following entirely fictitious but totally plausible scenario:

A diner at the Kuwait City branch of The Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain complains to his waiter that the pickles in his Americana Cheeseburger (American and cheddar cheese, crunchy potato crisps, lettuce, tomato, grilled onions, pickles and secret sauce) had a funny texture. The waiter instantly offers to replace the dish, since The Cheesecake Factory is committed to "absolute guest satisfaction," according to Donald Moore, chief culinary officer for The Cheesecake Factory Inc.

So the diner opts for the Spicy Crispy Chicken Sandwich (crispy coated chicken breast covered with melted cheese and either spicy Buffalo or chipotle mayo, served on a brioche bun), and subsequently reaches the company's desired level of satisfaction.

That very same day, diners at Cheesecake Factory outposts in Wauwatosa, Wis., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and Pembroke Pines, Fla., also complain about the texture of the pickles on their burgers.

Are these hypothetical experiences related in any way? And even if they are, is there any way that the people at The Cheesecake Factory's factory would ever learn of these events and connect them together?

In the future, the answer will be yes, according to Angela Nardone, chairman and chief innovation officer of N2N Global.

Nardone's company has partnered with IBM to use tools for analyzing big data sets to help the restaurant chain look for potential problems like this.

With more than 170 outlets, 300 menu items, and something like a thousand different fresh ingredients from dozens or hundreds of suppliers, Nardone explains, The Cheesecake Factory is blessed/cursed with a lot of data. The new software would allow the company to track whether the pickles all came from the same supplier, and whether other outlets were experiencing the same problem without yet being aware of it.

Normally, says Nardone, finding out something like that, never mind doing anything about it, can take weeks. With the big data analytical software, she says, the problem can be spotted and solved within a day.

"The new system can work bottom up or top down," says Nardone.

The software might detect a pattern in complaints from the field, as in my fictitious scenario, or a supplier could contact the restaurant chain about a problem with a particular ingredient, and the new software could rapidly disseminate that information to local branches.

And while the system wasn't implemented with public health in mind, it would certainly simplify tracking the culprit in cases of an outbreak of foodborne illness.

"We have talked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about this," says Nardone.

This complex new data analytics system may seem like a fairly expensive way to prevent the occasional mushy pickle from appearing on a burger. But as Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker, The Cheesecake Factory does seem to have an extremely high commitment to smooth operations and customer satisfaction for the more than 80 million people it serves each year.

But "absolute guest satisfaction"? I have to admit, that quest seems a bit quixotic to me.

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