November 2009

The Cheesecake Factory: Recipient of our 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award

By: The Tasting Panel Editorial Team
Photos by: Cathy Twigg-Blumel

Look at the stunning success of David Overton’s The Cheesecake Factory (TCF). There are not only 146 busy, busy Cheesecake Factory restaurants in 35 states, but also further concepts: the globally inspired Grand Luxe Cafe (13 locations and counting) and the exotic and colorful RockSugar Pan Asian Kitchen, a one-off (for now) in Los Angeles’s Century City. Taken together, these establishments represent the culmination of service, high-quality food and darn great people—a team of leaders who have branded this amazing chain, redefining casual dining and fresh cocktails and bringing The Cheesecake Factory a reputation that certainly warrants the industry’s attention.

How successful is their beverage program? To take just one example, it was The Cheesecake Factory that put the Mojito on the tip of America’s tongue, bringing a once unheard-of drink into the foreground.
Taken as a percentage, TCF’s bar business exceeds that of any other chain. The numbers are spectacular, and so are the people behind this unparalleled success story.

Russell Greene, Senior VP, leads the executive beverage and bakery team at The Cheesecake Factory. He accepts THE TASTING PANEL’S LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD on November 12.
Russell Greene

Behind the scenes is Russell Greene, Senior VP for TCF. The first thing you’ll find out about this gracious, warm man is that before anything else, he is a musician.

Although Greene’s first on-premise job in the early ‘80s was at the L.A.-based Great American Food & Beverage Company, where “everyone was a musician” (actress Katey Sagal worked as a singing waitress at the Santa Monica location), he eventually worked his way up from busboy to General Manager.

When that chain closed, Greene took a job at The Cheesecake Factory’s original location in Beverly Hills, where he applied as a cook. “This restaurant was the talk of the town,” he recalled. “I thought that would be an easy job and allow me time to focus on writing songs and recordings. The GM who interviewed me (now a close friend and colleague) didn’t believe my resume; at 23, I had already done a lot. Running the other restaurants at my age was a surprise, but she did hire me as a server. It was a perfect fit."

But the sense of excellence comes from the top: Cheesecake Factory founder and CEO David Overton was Greene’s true inspiration. “When I moved into a management role, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a bigger and better beverage program. David was on board.”

Greene moved to the corporate office in Calabasas Hills, northwest of Los Angeles, as the Corporate Beverage Manager. “The spirit of creativity is at the core of our beverage program,” he says proudly. “It’s at the core of our company. It’s all about choice; every guest gets to choose exactly what they want, and everything—even the most basics─ needs to be exceptional. David is always asking, ‘Can it be better?’ We’re never satisfied; this kind of commitment leaves us restless, but at the same time, fills us with pride.”

The Beverage & Bakery Team

Heather Berry

Part of The Cheesecake Factory family for 14 years, Heather Berry was formerly an Area Director overseeing eight restaurants. When Russell Greene was promoted to Senior Vice President last year, she filled his former Beverage and Bakery Operations executive position.  “Heather was one of the finest General Managers and Area Directors in our company,” Greene told THE TASTING PANEL. “She was known for her unparalleled depth of knowledge and passionate standards of excellence.   She was the perfect choice to lead the department."

“Those were big shoes to fill,” laughs Berry whose expertise on-location has given her the insight to know which programs will work and which may wilt. “Russell maintains the title of research and development master. He’s the one with the amazing palate. My task is to work with him side-by-side, taste test every day and then take the programs to the restaurants and implement them. I didn’t believe it when he stuffed blue cheese into an olive for the first time. But now we know how that turned out…”

Heather Berry, Director of Beverage & Bakery.

Matt Raftree is TCF’s Senior Manager, Beverage & Bakery Operations.
Matt Raftree

Originally hired 14 years ago as a bartender in Chicago/Hancock—The Cheesecake Factory’s 12th location—Matt Raftree worked his way up to the role of corporate trainer. He met Russell Greene when he opened the Denver location in 1997. From there, he kept moving up. Last year he was promoted to his current position as Senior Manager, Beverage & Bakery Operations.

His strength lies in his extensive history of bar operations. “It’s easy for me to relate to the staff and help create tools that are easily adaptable behind the bar.”

Raftree deals with distributors and vendors almost every day. “When a product gets added, it has a 99 percent chance of getting on the national core list,” he says. “If that brand isn’t already on the map, we’ll help put it there.” Matt is known for his tremendous dedication and versatility. 


Phil Adler

Every day, Phil Adler presents new cocktail recipes to the team. In their own bar at the Calabasas headquarters, the research and development process is a continuous task—requiring great creativity and tenacity. Adler heads up the process, coordinating all tastings and recipes, leveraging his team of Cheesecake Factory mixologists to develop the best-tasting, most up-to-the-trend drinks with the freshest ingredients. 

Jeff Wiley

With 21 years behind him at The Cheesecake Factory, Jeff Wiley has concocted many of the cocktails that have made the grade. Based at the Redondo Beach location, Wiley comes up to taste the team on his new recipes. A new flavored rum or vodka may inspire him to create a Wiley masterpiece. He is best known for one drink that has his name on it: JW’s Pink Lemonade has been on the menu for the past 17 years.




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