The restaurant industry was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Taco Bell had their revenues hold up the best because many of their customers were experienced in using their drive-through windows, which typically remained open except during the worst of the pandemic in the Spring of 2020. Restaurants that rely on table service suffered steeper declines in revenue because even when local governments allowed them to be open, they were typically required to operate at reduced capacity. In addition, through most of 2021, some consumers were reluctant to spend an hour or more eating indoors for fear of contracting the virus.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, fast-casual restaurants like Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Cheesecake Factory had been increasing in popularity, drawing customers from both more formal table service restaurants and from fast food-food restaurants. But because of their reliance on indoor dining, many fast-casual restaurants suffered sharp declines in revenue. For instance, in the spring of 2020, Cheesecake Factory was losing $6 million per week and at one point had less than $100 million remaining on hand to meet its costs.
As we discuss in Chapter 13, Section 13.3, firms in a monopolistically competitive like restaurants have difficulty earning an economic profit in the long run. Normally, economic profit is eliminated by entry of new firms. But during the pandemic, the process was speeded up as what had been profitable business strategies suddenly no longer were.
Cheesecake Factory had been earning an economic profit by following a strategy that differentiated it from similar restaurant chains. At 10,000 square feet, the dining rooms in its restaurants are much larger than in other fast-casual restaurants and Cheesecake Factory has many more items on its menus. Both these features turned into liabilities during the pandemic because before the pandemic Cheesecake Factory’s revenue would exceed its costs only if its restaurants were operated close to their capacity. In many cities, well into 2021, government restrictions required restaurants to operate at reduced capacity. In addition, like most other restaurants, as it reopened Cheesecake Factory had trouble attracting enough servers and cooks—a particular problem given the large number of items on its menus.
Cheesecake Factory returned to profitability in 2021 by adopting a new strategy of emphasizing delivering orders and having orders available for pickup at its restaurants (“to-go” orders). This strategy was successful in part because Cheesecake Factory executives made the decision during 2020 to continue to pay its 3,000 managers during the period when most of its restaurants were closed. Doing so meant having to raise $200 million from investors to pay the managers’ salaries. Keeping managers on payroll meant that the firm had the staff on hand to successfully manage the increase in to-go and delivery orders.
The success of the strategy was helped by the fact that cheesecake turned out to be a more popular delivery item than the firm had expected. An article in the Wall Street Journal quoted the firm’s president as saying that people were ordering it for a delivery throughout the day, including people “who are just getting slices at nine o’clock at night delivered to their house.” The firm has doubled its to-go orders compared with before the pandemic and its overall sales per restaurant have increased from an average of $11 million before the pandemic to $12 million in 2021.
Is Cheesecake Factory’s recent success sustainable? In emphasizing to-go and delivery orders, Cheesecake Factory initially had an advantage over its competitors because it had retained thousands of managers who could implement this new strategy. But this advantage may not last long for two reasons: 1) as the effects of the pandemic lessen, consumers may want to return to indoor dining, so the volume of to-go and delivery orders may decline; and 2) to the extent that consumers have permanently reduced their demand for indoor dining, competitors can copy Cheesecake Factory’s approach. Many competitors in fact have devoted more resources to to-go and delivery orders and the market for this type of dining is becoming as competitive as the market for in-door dining.
Cheesecake Factory has one other advantage: Cheesecake turned out to be a particularly popular food for delivery and cheesecake sales have become a larger percentage of the firm’s revenues since the beginning of the pandemic. Although, because the word “cheesecake” is in the firm’s name, it may retain some advantage among consumers who want to order a delivery of cheesecake, competitors can easily also add cheesecake to their delivery menus.
So, our general conclusion holds that it is very difficult for firms in a monopolistically competitive industry to earn an economic profit in the long run.
Sources: Heather Haddon, “How Cheesecake to Go Saved the Cheesecake Factory,” wsj.com, October 29, 2021; Teresa Rivas, “Cheesecake Factory Stock Is Falling Because Sales Took a Nose Dive,” barrons.com, July 29, 2020; Rick Clough, “Cheesecake Factory Settles SEC Charges over Covid Statements,” bloomberg.com, December 4, 2020; Tomi Kilgore, “Cheesecake Factory Stock Jumps after Upbeat Sales Update,” marketwatch.com, June 2, 2021.