As someone who will drive to the ends of the earth for a good meal, yet likes to wear sweatpants whenever possible, the cultural baggage associated with dining choices and what leads us to eat at certain places is of interest to me.
Nowhere is this more fascinating than among NBA players. Or, more precisely, among black NBA players and their patronage of the Cheesecake Factory.
Henry Abbott of TrueHoop.com has covered many of the reasons players flock there: portion size, menu size, made-to-order meals, late hours, and the consistency of a chain. But as a member of the black community*, it still strikes me as odd that multi-millionaires would choose the Cheesecake Factory as a restauranting destination. For all the possible appeal, there is a central point that makes it hard to understand why guys who can afford any meal in town are going to this run-of-the-mill chain: the food isn’t particularly good.
This is not to say that the Cheesecake Factory is horrendously bad, it’s just that if I were given a $100 per diem and had a yearly salary in the millions, I’d never come close to stepping in the place, let alone searching out one in each city.
Now to be fair, even among my mostly white friends and family, the Factory is a lightning rod for culinary controversy. Some, like I do, think the place serves bland, overpriced, glorified, slob food − kind of an upscale TGI Fridays with a veneer of fake culture that might be associated with a Red Lobster or Olive Garden. Others rave about the big portions, jumbo-sized menu, and yes, the cheesecake.
However, if the discussion were to turn to why white people in my circle of friends like going to the Cheesecake Factory, I would be satisfied in saying they just have bad taste and calling it a day, just like if you asked me what I thought of a group of hockey players liking the band Winger. But make the conversation about NBA players and throw in that most of them are black, and the conversation becomes very different, and certainly far more precarious. For the participant (me), things go from having a simple/snobby/funny opinion, to the answer feeling like the weight of the world is hanging on my choice of words, where one misstep means, at best, hypersensitive people think I’m ignorant, and where, at worst, I may never work again.
Dr. Harry Edwards , thankfully, understood:
“I’ve been a sociologist for 45 years and the most difficult thing in the world that I’ve ever had to deal with is how I talk about race, gender, and religion in a language that will carry the idea yet not run afoul of some of these tripwires.”
For all the trepidation I had in trying to figure out an issue, albeit a minor one, related to race, I felt more comfortable knowing that a sociology professor at the University of California Berkeley, who was not only a the sports psychologist for the San Francisco 49ers, but who was also involved in the civil rights movement in a serious way (having orchestrated Juan Carlos and Tommy Smith giving the “black power” salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics), still struggles with communication .
“We just do not have the language to discuss race in a reasonable way at this point,” said Edwards. “We’re talking about over 400 years of sometimes deadly confrontation, conflict, and contradiction over the issue of race, and as a consequence of that we’ve developed a certain language and discourse relative to it which is substantially confrontational and insulting. So at the end of the day what it means is there’s no clear common ground where people can sit and rationally discuss or even raise the issue of race in any context where a person can be wrong without being accused of being a racist.”
Hear, hear/whoot there it is, to that. So since we don’t have the language, what the hell am I supposed to do?
“Well, what we can do in the meanwhile is to cut each other some slack. Let’s realize that black, brown, white, red, yellow is going to make statements, and sometimes, dumb statements. Let’s get over it and move on, and carry on the discussion.”
Sounds good to me.** So, continue the discussion we did. Certainly a conversation on this lightweight topic would be a slam dunk for him. (And no, I didn’t use a basketball term because he’s black. However, to be perfectly honest, if Edwards were white, I probably would have gone with “layup while slapping the backboard” instead). I ran the theories laid out on TrueHoop past Harry and he more or less agreed with most of them. But I felt there was a larger piece to the puzzle: taste in food, a tricky element due to its subjective nature.
“If you don’t like [the food], what’s the highest acclaimed restaurant?” said Edwards. “A lot of people were disappointed during the integration movement when they went to the white restaurants and there wasn’t a damn thing on the menu.”
I can (somewhat) relate to this idea. Certainly many restaurants that are considered “great” are just a bunch of overpriced, pretentious, hooey, where you can spend $200 and still not get full. And maybe there aren’t a lot of high-end dining options that black people are into in general. I eat out virtually every meal, at restaurants that run the gamut of tastes and price ranges, and although you rarely see black people at the ones that are well-reviewed, you do see them spending a boatload of money at midrange to upscale chains: Japanese steakhouses like Benihana or meat and potato Houston’s (which, for the record, is delicious), or Ruth Chris. That, in part, may be because different cultures like different kinds of food, but I don’t think that’s all of it. As Edwards says, taste is an ever evolving process, and I’m pretty sure, for instance, that most black people who like Benihana would prefer Katana if they gave it a shot. I can’t help but think that there are other factors that are keeping NBA players, and black people in general, out of many of the restaurants with big portions that are actually good.
The most significant factor appears to be atmosphere as it relates to upbringing. Many NBA players come from poor, inner-city situations not unlike those seen by millions of white people on television shows. Like every white person trying to sound cool while talking about race, I’ll relate the issue to the show “The Wire.”
In one episode, a teacher takes some of his young, at-risk, students out to eat at one of the finest and fanciest restaurants in Baltimore. The students, who are the only black people in the restaurant, have to dress up and follow protocol they’re unfamiliar with. It’s a fairly overwhelming scenario, and fittingly, a lot of self-esteem issues are brought up, and the night is an emotional one.
Many NBA players are young themselves and have never been put into this kind of a dining environment, so it would make sense that they don’t want to start going to places with a maitre d’ in a tuxedo and deal with white people bullshit now that they have money to go wherever they want.
You don’t need to be black or an NBA player to relate on some level. Anyone can feel uncomfortable going to a restaurant a little outside of your socio-economic or cultural comfort zone. You can feel stupid not knowing what certain things are on the menu, awkward in not knowing what protocol is for ordering, and embarrassed by not being sure if you’re wearing the right kind of clothes. But when you add being the only black person in the restaurant and thinking that every possible misstep is, or at least might be, attributable to your race and/or humble upbringing, it can be overwhelming and a deterrent from going to a restaurant with an unpronounceable French name, no matter how good the food may be or how big the portion size is.
The Factory does a good job of eliminating these hurdles for everyone. It has no dress code, it has a huge menu with pretty simple made to order fare, and it has a staff of waiters who are accustomed to dealing with people from all backgrounds and are more high school students with an after-school job than snooty sommeliers.
This is not to say that all black NBA players like the Factory (some certainly do not), or that every black NBA player who likes the Factory has never been exposed to fine dining, or feels intimidated at higher scale restaurants. Certainly some NBA players, like my friends, just have bad/different taste. But it also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Given the upbringing of many of these players, restaurants that make the Zagat Guide are completely foreign to them and aren’t even on the radar for a nice night on the town. Therefore, the status motivation for going to Chez Frenchie becomes limited if it has no cache in their community, even if people within that community would find the restaurant superior if they tasted the food.
Professor Edwards agreed with much of this. It seemed as if we were figuring this thing out. “It could very well be as you say that it’s not intimidating, it has a familiar menu, the portions are large, it accommodates the cultural tastes that they bring to that situation, but that would not necessarily distinguish why the Cheesecake Factory as opposed to Red Lobster. Now maybe you get into the kind of thing where there’s more of a singles or young adult atmosphere as opposed to the traditional family environment.”
Oh, Henry, you sure know your stuff. With a bar area that is prominently featured in every Cheesecake Factory, the place has a lot more potential for adult fun than, say, the Olive Garden. And by “adult fun” I mean that while the Factory’s recipe for Veal Milanese might be suspect, their recipe for skanky groupies is impeccable. There’s no dress code. Anyone can get in. Drinks aren’t super expensive. But the atmosphere has just enough fake sophistication to make you think you’re doing something a little more special than going to Chili’s for an Awesome Blossom with the gals at the office. Fittingly, the bar crowd is the kind of girls who might know and care who the backup small forward for the Pacers is. You don’t necessarily get that if you go to the Beverly Hills Hotel lounge. But do the groupies go to the Cheesecake Factory because they know NBA players go there or do NBA players go to Cheesecake Factory because they know the place attracts the kind of girls that are groupies? No matter. Either way, a trip to the Factory means an NBA player might be getting fed and laid all in one trip.
With all of this in mind, I called Howard Gordon, Senior Vice President of Business Development and Marketing for the Cheesecake Factory, and asked him a very simple question: Why do NBA Players like to go to the Cheesecake Factory? Gordon told me about all of the NBA players he knows and has dined with, from Mike Bibby to Shaq. He then went on to explain what he believed were the reasons: the award-winning food (what awards The C&C Cheesecake Factory has won, I don’t even want to guess), portion size, and the rest. His revelatory nuggets were delivered in the form of glossy talking points and corporate no-speak. (As an aside, I later found some of the quotes he was giving me verbatim in another interview).
I asked if special accommodations were made for players, or if they liked to be seen, but Gordon was so savvy/dishonest he wouldn’t give a straight answer to something as straightforward as that. His answer to everything was just that the Cheesecake Factory treats everyone the same and has such great atmosphere, ambiance, and well really, such great everything, that at no one could resist. This was merely annoying, and not entirely unexpected.
But when I wanted to dive into the issue further, it struck a nerve:
“Every time I’ve been in a Cheesecake Factory I’ve noticed there are way more black people than in other restaurants in the area. Is that a possible reason NBA players like to go there? Is there something about the place that appeals to black people?”
Gordon was caught. There was no right answer. An admission that more black people go there, and you’re potentially turning off white customers who don’t feel comfortable in places thought to be for “black people.” Say black people don’t go there at any higher of a rate, and that’s a slap in the face to the black community. So Gordon just covered his eyes and went to the lowest of the low in the publicist bag of tricks.
“I have to tell you, I’m pretty offended.”
“I find that question offensive.”
(Gordon, for the record, is white.)
“I find categorizing people by race a horrible thing to do.”
Categorizing people by race is horrible? There’s no difference between the races? Nothing that can be learned?
“Anybody who walks into our restaurant is welcome to come and eat.”
No one ever said you were discriminating against people.
“We don’t ‘count’ how many African-Americans come into the Cheesecake Factory.”
(I was told later that the Factory does in fact keep track of demographics, which is pretty standard for a chain.)
I didn’t ask if you counted. I asked if you thought there was something about the Cheesecake Factory that appeals to black people more than other restaurants and if that’s part of the reason that black NBA players go there. I mean, that’s the whole reason we’re having this conversation.
“Well, it’s offensive. This is just a stupid question.”
You didn’t think it was a stupid question when you thought you were going to just get to plug the restaurant.
I was then hung up on. Golly, are white people uptight.
In the tradition of asking the approval of a black person on a racial issue I went back to Harry Edwards more and thought he’d agree Howard Gordon was absurd.
“I tried to tell you. Any time you open that can of worms, that’s what you get into. They’re giving you the reaction that you will get anytime you raise a racial issue relative to anything. It’s one thing for people to deal with an issue once it comes up because it’s out there but if you’re the one raising the issue, you’re the bad guy.”
I think this is a pretty innocuous topic, though.
“There’s no such thing as innocuous when you’re handling dynamite, and it’s not frivolous for the same reason. But because you’re dealing with a highly explosive issue, the challenge is: Is the light worth the heat you’re going to take? Is the light you’re going to bring on why NBA players eat at the Cheesecake Factory worth the hit you’re going to take?”
Geez, I’m not sure there’s anything to be gained from this for me, really. It’s not like I’m going to win a Pulitzer, and there surely is the chance someone more important than Howard Gordon will flip out and try to make an example out of me for no good reason.
“Well, you have to look at all of that and maybe just say: “Bon appetite.”
*I am not, in fact, black.
**Ok Edwards, just make sure you remember saying this when Al Sharpton’s holding a news conference calling for my head outside of a Cheesecake Factory hand in hand with a tearful Darius Miles.