Lebanon’s Cheesecake Factory Was Very Bad

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My attempts at trying the Cheesecake Factory go back to when I was in the U.S. a few months ago and couldn’t manage to find a table back then. I stood around, watching as servers shuffled around seemingly endless tables, carrying plates with enormous food portions. The cheesecake fridge looked great, but that was the extent of my experience at the time in early April.

Fast forward around 8 months, and the renowned American chain has recently opened up in Lebanon, in its continuing development in the Middle East, after opening up several branches in GCC countries.

Lebanon’s Cheesecake Factory is super busy. Wait times so far, even a week later, are still in the one hour range. They could rise even more. The hostesses were boasting yesterday, as they informed us we were lucky enough to only have to face a 20 minutes delay, that earlier that day some people had to wait three hours.

I have no idea why anyone would want to wait anyone for anything food related, and I’m really thankful I only had to wait 20 minutes to get my “Cheesecake Factory Experience, Lebanon style” because that was the maximum extent of my time – or anyone’s time – that such an experience deserves.

Me No Speak Arabic:

 

When your wait time is done and your buzzer vibrates for salvation, you get a very cheerful hostess – American style – take you to your seat. She gives you the menus, informs you in English that servers will be with you shortly and disappears.

So far so good. At that point, her English doesn’t feel out of place even though you’ve used only Arabic to communicate with all the employees, but no matter.

The server shows up. You ask them in Arabic about their recommendation, because the menu is barely readable with the super dim lighting in the place. They reply in English, sometimes borderline incomprehensible, but you try to maintain the conversation anyway. After taking your order, all forms of interactions with the server occur in English. That is you talk to them in Arabic and they reply in English.

When asked why they kept talking to me in English, their reply was that: this was the store’s policy. As I asked the manager about this, because it gets super annoying, and he said that the American head company has such a stipulation as a requirement to give customers the “American” experience.

Except we’re not American – sadly (unless the experience comes with a free passport) – and while many of us are bi or trilingual, there is absolutely no need to use any other language than my native tongue at a restaurant in my home country unless I wish to do so, and in most cases I do not, and I sure as hell did not want to feel like I was being rendered stupid by talking Lebanese to a server and being replied to in English, à la “get your language up to standards, sir.”

Perhaps this rule works best in GCC countries where most of the Factor’s customers are not native Arabic-speakers, but they desperately need to re-check this policy over here.

Overwhelmed Staff & Subpar Service:

Lebanon’s Cheesecake Factory boasts, according to the manager, more than 96 servers at an average of around 2 tables per server. You’d think with such a low ratio of tables to servers, you’d get excellent service.

It’s far from the case.

The huge number of servers leads to total chaos across the entire restaurant. You get to a point where you don’t know who you’re supposed to talk to in order to communicate a request or a complaint.

The level of the staff being overwhelmed is so high that there were serious shortcomings across the board. I’m not the only one who suffered from this, as several of my colleagues and friends also noted on their visits earlier in the week.

Perhaps it’s opening-week-jitters, but with the presence of staff from already-established Cheesecake Factory outlets to help in the launching phase, I don’t know how much of the service’s shortcomings can be attributed to nervousness.

Maybe it’s the language requirement?

Besides, the service is definitely not as “American” as you’d think it is. We got an aluminum foil piece in the item we ordered and no one reacted until, before paying the bill, we requested to see the manager to inform him about how horrible the experience was and about how we would most likely not visit again, not that they need our business anyway.

The Food Is Overpriced, But The Cakes Are Great:

I don’t know about the bloggers who were invited there for the opening, but if you go there as a normal civilian, you are looking at a bill that is above and beyond anything you’d pay at any other similar Lebanese restaurant, even if it’s American in origin.

In deciding what I wanted to order, I googled the best items of the Factory and found a bunch of results that agreed on a couple of chicken-based dishes, which I ended up ordering. While they food was good enough, it was definitely not worth the $24 price per dish that we paid.

The food is also extremely fatty. Even the “skinnilicious” menu is not that “light.” I’m still stuffed more than 15 hours later, and we were sharing.

The saving grace, however, is that the cheesecakes are great. Seriously. I really hope they offer a way for people just to buy pieces of the cakes without queuing. We ordered a couple different kinds and the “Godiva Chocolate Cheesecake” is God-send. Absolutely great.

Stay Away For Now:

My advice to you, dear reader, is to resist the urge and steer clear of that place until either the mania dies down, or the staff becomes better trained, or they become more accustomed to the Lebanese market and adapt accordingly.

Until then, I have to say I was severely disappointed and would not recommend this place to anyone who’d listen.

It’s nice for the country to bring business in, but I refuse to be taken for granted as a Lebanese customer who can’t wait to set foot in any given franchise, which is sad really because I honestly had high hopes.

 

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Lebanese Restaurants: What Will Your Price Limit Be?

I decided to go out with a few friends tonight for dinner. Pretty mundane stuff, right? Well, with med schools and all such dinners have become quite rare so I tend to jump on them whenever I can.

We went to a place we were all familiar with: nothing too fancy, supposedly, and prices that were acceptable, supposedly.
We were given the menus. I looked at my go-to item and it seems since I visited that place last back in September, prices had taken a hike.

That same hike also happened last year across many of the country’s restaurants. And then the year before that. And the year before that. And we can go on for several years more but the sentence would become too wordy and tedious.

As we made our way back home, my friends and I wondered: when will Lebanese restaurants realize that it’s unacceptable to have these yearly price hikes that come in like clockwork when there are very few reasons (read none at all) to warrant them?

Lebanese restaurants don’t exist in vacuum. They exist in a country where salaries have not increased since last year and where the economic situation has become very tough for many people who used to frequent such places.

Have they seen their business take a dip over the past year? I doubt. And I doubt they’ll be affected this year as well. But we’re fast reaching the point where burger joints will stamp the word gourmet next to their names and cater only to select clientele because, you know, Lebanese love their exclusivity.

I’m not saying restaurants shouldn’t open a charity-esque business or not work for profit because that defeats the purpose of their existence.  I’m just saying there comes a time when the price of a French fries platter that doesn’t contain that much fries almost hitting $5 is way too much.

Roadster Diner’s Route 66 Burger

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It can’t all be all seriousness all the time, right?

I haven’t had a full-blown burger meal in a long time. After all, the 30+ kilos I lost since January need to be maintained somehow.

But I figured I’d let myself some leeway for only one day and try out the new burger at Roadster Diner, introduced for their 15th anniversary.

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Disclaimer: I do not pretend to understand meat textures, composition, cooking levels and other culinary details I won’t bother looking up to sound sophisticated.

The new Roadster burger comes with their regular coleslaw salad, which I used to normally switch out for Ceasar salad. It also has a side of crunchy fries with a dip that make the meal worth it from the get-go if you feel like splurging on the calories. I really hope they include this upgrade with other burgers later on or introduce it as an addition to the menu.

The burger itself is very different taste-wise from Roadster’s other burgers of which I am a fan. This diner serves my favorite burgers in the country so far. I’m not sure if you hear this often but the Fit ‘N Burger is, in my opinion, one of their best and, at 485 calories, suits those who are on a calories-restricted diet.

With 250g of meat, this is their biggest paddy. It comes with onion, cheddar, the burger sauce and lettuce. The taste is very similar to the burger at Frosty’s palace, if you’ve tried it, except this one is lighter on the pocket. You may find the mixture odd at first but you’ll get used to it from the second bite, be hooked by the third and thoroughly enjoy your meal.

The entire meal is priced at 24,750LL ($16.5). Adding a soft drink to it would bring your bill up to about $20. The meal big enough to satisfy you for a long time (or this could be my diet-used self only).

The waiter and the manager were both very keen to know what I thought of the burger though they had no idea about the dietary composition of it, not that you’d care that much if you’re having it.

If you’re a burger fan, I recommend you give it a try at least once.

P.S.: Prophylactically, you’re welcome.

Excellent Lebanese Customer Service: Roadster Diner

The amount of professionalism at Roadster Diner keeps blowing me away. It could be because we’re not used to such levels of courtesy with customers in Lebanon.

During lent last year, the only and last time I decided to go all Bible belt-Christian and gave up 95% of types of food that man can eat, I ordered some form of a modified crab sandwich-turned vegan from Roadster. There was something wrong with the sauce. So I let them know via a DM on Twitter – I didn’t mind but I felt like they should know to prevent such a thing from occurring with other customers.

A day later, I was contacted by their HQ and discussed the matter for 40 minutes. Discussing sauce for slightly less than an hour can be refreshing.  They requested my address and sent me a package including a free dinner voucher.

Over the past few months, my visits to Rd less and less frequent. You can blame my diet for that, being way up North (they should consider opening something north of Jounieh, something I’ve said before) and medical school for that.

However, a few days ago I decided to indulge in a guilt-full burger as a way to celebrate a weight-related milestone I had crossed. First time in a long time I’m under 100kg!

I ended up finding the tiniest hair possible in my fries, something that is not unusual at restaurants. I am not the type to throw a fit when I see such a thing – there are much worse things that could take place with your food – but I always point it out. So I quietly called over a waiter and did so. He exchanged the fries and I figured that was it, as it should have been.

When we asked for the bill, I was surprised to find a lazy cake being placed on my table and the bill excluding my burger. I complained about this but they were adamant. And this happens every single time something like that happens.

This isn’t a rare occurrence that only happens with me. A friend of mine was having lunch once with a group of friends. He ordered some chicken tenders which came in late and were in less than optimal condition. He pointed it out. The entire table’s bill was on the house. The examples don’t stop there.

For many, such practices should come as second nature to businesses. But the fact of the matter is what Roadster and some very few select companies across the company do is not only rare, it’s borderline unique.

No, I’m not getting paid to write this. I am not a business guru or savant. My extent of business knowledge is the stock app on my iPhone. But as a customer, I believe that the practices of Roadster diner, as an example, make me feel like more than a number with some monetary input associated with it. If anything what Roadster and some other companies do is anything but what we’ve come to associate with typical Lebanese business behavior. And for that, they should be applauded.

The Problem With Banning Pork and Alcohol At Some Lebanese Restaurants

Gino Raidy’s encounter at ZWZ’s Hamra Branch went viral across Lebanon’s internet community very fast. His shock that a restaurant like ZWZ, infamous for his Halloumi bacon sandwiches, would actually have a branch that wouldn’t serve anything non-conformant with Islamic sharia sparked some huge debate as is evident by the extensive response to his post which you can read here.

It is beyond perfectly understandable that such an issue would be considered by many as infringing on their basic freedom of eating whatever they want to eat. It is also beyond ironic that ZWZ Hamra might as well be the go-to restaurant for Lebanese pub-goers who drink themselves away a few meters away in Hamra’s infamous alleyway and other pubs.

So why would Islamic sharia be up and running in one place and completely shattered in another place? ZWZ’s diplomatic reply to the matter alluded to their leasing conditions: the person from whom they got their lease doesn’t allow pork and alcohol on the premises of his building and ZWZ had to conform.

The question, therefore, asks itself: couldn’t have ZWZ opened elsewhere?

The answer is: most probably not.

It’s easy to preach regarding the matter but the fact of the matter remains that landlords have the upper hand in cosmopolitan places like Hamra (despite what Homeland’s producers want you to believe) because of the extremely high demand for property and the low supply. Whatever a landlord wants, a landlord gets. And most companies have to deal with is as such despite their better judgement.

The fix for this is, obviously, stricter governmental regulations. But in a country where such an issue comes at possibly the lowest of importance in woes, such regulations will not be enforced anytime soon.

The issue, though, is not in disassociation with the general mood of the country.

This vigilante sharia applying is unacceptable. I’m not entirely sure if it’s legal as well. Is it allowed for someone to enforce something on their own property that is not legal across Lebanon? My gut tells me no. But Lebanese law has these sporadic eccentricities that make it baffling. And regardless of whether it’s legal or not, what is actually legal in Lebanon and is actually applied?

The only urban planning law that I know of pertaining to this matter is banning alcohol sales within a certain radius of any prayer house, including Churches. Christian areas do not conform with it while places like Tripoli apply it to the letter. You would be lucky to find a place in Tripoli with a carton of booze under the counter which they dispense to their most loyal customers only.

What is sure, however, is that this vigilante sharia is creating an even bigger divide in a country that doesn’t need more divisions to begin with, even among Muslims themselves because it’s not really about religion but about ideology. Banning alcohol and pork, which slowly turns places in a country that falls more on the liberal side in this deeply conservative region, slowly disassociates regions from each other: turning some more extreme while others become more liberal, the cultural and sectarian divide growing even bigger. The conservatives, subsequently, become more conservative. The less conservative folk become less so and the merry goes round. The clash between these ideologies would grow stronger.

Perhaps it is ZWZ’s right not to serve alcohol and pork on some of its premises. But when there’s no regulation to dictate this, the question asks itself: what’s the limit for this sort of “freedom” for restaurants? When does imposing restrictions on others, even those who share your religious views, crosses the line of freedom? And is it truly permissible to say that, due to the presence of alternatives, discussing the presence of Sharia-abiding restaurants should not be allowed?

 

Fuddruckers Lebanon Closes Down?

 

The country’s current economic situation hasn’t been kind. Buddha Bar will soon close down and rumors were swirling around about the possibility of Metropolitan shutting down too. These were later discredited. However, it seems the current situation of the country is going to add another victim to its growing list and it’s the American diner chain Fuddruckers, which opened last year.

A friend who happens to like the place had decided to visit the diner yesterday and was surprised to find it completely closed, with a ribbon in front of its main door and no parking service in sight. And you’d think seeing as November 1st is a day off for most schools in the country, the place would open in order to attract students who probably decided to go out with their friends.

I wouldn’t be too surprised if the place ended up really shutting down. Based on personal observation, business wasn’t exactly booming back when the situation in the country was better than its current state. I personally visited it once with Australian friends and wasn’t too taken by their burgers which I found to be very plain. However, we were the only people there and only three other customers came in during our one hour stay.

The question to be asked is the following: If a chain like Fuddruckers has truly shut down in Lebanon, what would that say of the much smaller businesses spread all around the country? How struggling are they currently?

And if Buddha Bar and Fuddruckers couldn’t weather down the current storm, you cannot but wonder: how thick is the bubble for the collective Lebanese population that seems to be absolutely oblivious to how horrible the economy currently is?

At the rate this is going, it won’t be long before we get another chain closing down.

Buddha Bar Lebanon Shuts Down

Here’s yet another nail in Lebanon’s economic coffin. Buddha Bar, one of Lebanon’s trendiest go-to places, is shutting down permanently, according to the Daily Star. This will get approximately 200 employees laid off from their jobs.

The cause for Buddha Bar shutting down is non-other than the great situation the country is going through. If you haven’t been in the loop, which I doubt, here’s what it breaks down into, grosso modo.

  • A very poor touristic season over the summer.
  • Civil unrest that ignites at any moment.
  • A seemingly camping-site friendly Downtown Beirut, which is where Buddha Bar is located. It has been turned into such a place twice in the past four years alone. They also offer discounts if you want to join them in rainy weather.
  • Political leadership with absolutely no idea whatsoever on how to run things.

And things don’t seem that they’ll drastically improve anytime soon with rhetoric that keeps sinking, politicians who believe acting feisty over Twitter will bring forth change and supporters who are more than convinced that their corresponding side of the political spectrum has done absolutely nothing wrong over the past few years – or has done things that are entirely justifiable.

Meanwhile, 200 families have just lost means of support. And if Buddha Bar is closing down, what does that say about the countless other smaller businesses that are suffering in this country? How many other families will have their jobs taken away from them just because our country is always the playground of others?

We cannot really work on fixing our economy until we fix everything that’s ruining it and herein lies the problem: where do we start fixing?