The Untold Truth Of Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen

At Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen (popularly known as just "Cheddar's"), over 90 percent of what you get served is made in house from scratch. The chefs get working at 6 a.m. every day — prepping meat and baking pies — before the crowd trickles in four to five hours later. Their chicken tenders are hand-breaded and fried, and the onion rings are cut in uniform sizes and stacked one on top of the other like a Jenga tower. The chain, which has over 170 restaurants across 28 states, has had a long journey to get where it is today. 

Doug Rogers and Aubry Good started the very first Cheddar's at Irving, Texas, in 1979. The chain has been sold and acquired many a time, even as it kept expanding its presence and carving its niche as a scratch kitchen. There were 42 Cheddar's restaurants when Dallas-based Brazos Private Equity Partners invested in the business in 2003. By 2006, when it was acquired by the venture capital firm Oak Investment Partners and private equity firm Catterton Partners, the number had grown to 55. The chain ballooned in size, adding over a 100 restaurants to its fold in the next ten years before the restaurant conglomerate Darden Restaurants absorbed Cheddar's into its family in 2017. Here are some little-known facts about the casual dining chain.

It wasn't always called Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen was originally called Cheddar's Casual Cafe. The name "Cheddar's" was in fact proposed by a fifth grade class, according to their website. All we know is the founders asked the kids for suggestions, and the rest is history. 

The transition from Cheddar's Casual Cafe to Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen had its reasons, though. While the restaurant chain cooked everything from scratch with fresh ingredients every morning, they realized that all their extra effort into making fresh food remained within the kitchen walls. None of the guests knew that the restaurant chain, unlike most other chains that use frozen and pre-made food to a large extent, made most of what they served from scratch at their restaurant (via FSR Magazine). So the then-president and CEO of Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, Ian Baines, used the name change as an opportunity to emphasize on what they always had been doing for the years since they were founded in 1979: making food from scratch.

Along with the change of name, restaurants that were corporate-owned at that point also underwent an overall rebranding in 2016, which included a new signage, new logo, new menu, and the inclusion of a new monitor that had video clips of scratch cooking playing in a loop. 

At Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, the kitchen size is twice the national average

They say too many cooks spoil the broth. Not at Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, though. According to a report in FSR Magazine, each restaurant of the chain is "staffed by twice the number of cooks working in most restaurant kitchens." And it is only natural that to accommodate all the extra cooks, the restaurant layout allocates a larger area for the kitchen. "Each location features a scratch kitchen that spans over 3,500 square feet," reports FSR Magazine. To compare this with the average kitchen size of restaurants in the States, according to a poll by via AZ Central, the average kitchen size is 1,051 square feet. That's a lot smaller than the kitchen you'll find at Cheddar's.

A lot of work goes into the dishes that they serve on a daily basis. For example, the beef short rib pot roast takes over three hours to cook, and many other dishes take plenty of time as well. What this means is that they have to be cooking all day long. That's not to mention the honey butter croissants that every guest is welcomed with (they are to Cheddar's what breadsticks are to Olive Garden), and the fresh batches of onion rings that are made every 20 minutes.

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen's menu has included recipes designed by kids more than once

At Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, there is a good possibility that what you see on the menu was not the creation of the head chef Robert Pesch and his team but rather a recipe by a child. It has happened more than once that the chain has printed recipes by kids on their menu. In 2015, as part of the brand makeover, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen in Amarillo, Texas, organized a side-dish contest for which they received hundreds of entries. The winning entry was an eight-year-old's recipe for creamy garlic mushrooms, and it was part of the restaurant's menu for six weeks (via Amarillo Globe News).

In 2017, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen partnered with Medical City Children's Hospital to organize a Kids Fit Menu contest. "Each student team was required to incorporate two full servings of fruits or vegetables into their recipe, as well as follow strict guidelines regarding the amount of sugar, sodium and trans fat that could be utilized in their dish," according to a report. As many as 25 schools from the Dallas–Fort Worth area participated. The winning team's recipes included pizza dippers and honey lime chicken wrap, featured on the menu at nine Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen restaurants for a limited time.

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen crowd-sourced ideas from its customers to create two new burgers

Going by the Japanese proverb, "The customer is god," it is only fair that restaurants approach customers directly to learn what they want. While this avoids the guessing game to a large extent, it also helps build engagement and strengthen a sense of community. That is why Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen asked their e-club members a simple yet important question: "What does a great burger mean to you?"

The e-club member community at Cheddar's is entitled to a coupon for free home-made queso and chips (as soon as they sign up), as well as scratch cooking tips, special discounts, and more. Also, as it turns out, joining the club also gives you the ability to describe the burger of their dream and have it be manifested in Cheddar's kitchen. According to Nation's Restaurant News, the chain got close to 20,000 replies to their question. Robert Pesch, director of Culinary Research and Development at Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, said: "We used that information, based on what our current burgers were, and looked at what we could do better." From this little experiment was born the jalapeño burger and the Mushroom Swiss cheeseburger.

Around the same year that Cheddar's set out to create the perfect burger, Baskin-Robbins launched an online competition where customers could create their own flavors, and a few years later, McDonald's launched their burger builder, an online platform where burger lovers could visualize their perfect burger.

You get a free pot pie on National Pie Day at Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen

If you are a pie fan, then there are two dates that you have to circle on your calendar right now: January 23, which is National Pie Day, and March 14, which is National Pi Day — pi as in the mathematical constant: 3.14159265359 (via Thrillist).

Restaurants across America, almost impartially, celebrate both the days by awarding their customers deals and discounts. Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen decided to join in the celebration in 2019 with their own unique deal on National Pi Day. It was unique because while other restaurants usually associate pi day or pie day with desserts and pizza, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen uses the occasion to celebrate one of their most popular entrees and a dish that has been part of their menu for 25 years: chicken pot pie.

As part of the "pie one, get one" offer, if you order Cheddar's homemade chicken pot pie at the restaurant or to go, you get another for free. The second pot pie is not ready to eat, but it comes with baking instructions. If you have the patience to let the oven do its work for 20 minutes, it's quite a sweet deal.

Each customer gets a honey butter croissant for free at Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen

The complimentary honey butter croissant at Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen only re-cements the belief that the best things in life are indeed free. However, unlike at Olive Garden where the breadsticks keep coming or at Texas Roadhouse that has no restrictions to how many buns you can wipe off the plate, at Cheddar's, only the first croissant is free (after which you have to shell out $1.99 for two).

They "are the restaurant's top-rated menu item, and most talked about item on social media," reports Yahoo Finance. And for good reason. The popularity of this item is such that when Cheddar's went through a slump in the first few months after they were bought over by Darden Restaurants in 2017, it was believed that the fate of the restaurant chain rested on this warm, buttery, and flaky croissant. Analyst Chris O'Cull of Stifel, an investment banking firm, told Orlando Sentinal that giving the bread for free to customers will increase the frequency at which they visit the restaurant and how loyal they stay to the brand.

Around the same time they started giving complimentary croissants, they also gave away boxes of honey butter croissants, croissant-inspired onesies, and pillows to families with newborns in hospitals and birthing centers for a limited time (via Delish). The chain took the croissant obsession up a notch with croissant corsage that it partnered with a Dallas-based florist to create.

Certain Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen restaurants were the target of a cyberattack

Security breaches in restaurants are, unfortunately, not that uncommon. Applebee's was hit with a security breach in 160 of its restaurants in 2018, and Chipotle faced a similar attack (via FSR Magazine). In August 2018, federal authorities informed Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen that they were the target of a cyber attack, affecting their units in 23 states. Those who dined at these select units of Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen between November 3, 2017, and January 2, 2018, faced the risk of having had their payment information and card details compromised. The number of customers affected by this security breach was a whopping 567,000.

This news came at a time when Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen was trying to recover from the negative same-store sales that it had been experiencing since being acquired by Darden Restaurants. In fact, according to the FSR Magazine report, the chain was the only one among the eight brands that Darden owned at the time to report negative sales. Darden offered all the customers who were affected by the incident free identity protection service by ID experts. This effort hopefully convinced the customers to forget about the incident, and start anew — from scratch. 

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen has bagged a number of awards

If we were to personify Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, the history of awards and recognitions make the chain seem like an overachieving 41-year-old. The restaurant chain has collected several awards in its kitty, the more significant ones include being recognized as the number-one pub-style chain by Consumer Reports among 101 restaurants (beating Texas Roadhouse, Applebee's and Buffalo Wild Wings) in 2009 and as the best full-service establishment in food, décor/facility, and overall by the restaurant review platform Zagat in 2012.

The chain made it to the list of Nations Restaurant News' Golden Chain 2013 Awardees list for showing remarkable growth between 2008 and 2013. This included doubling the number of restaurants to 130 and recording over 20 percent surges in sales. Technomic, an industry research firm, announced Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen as the best full-service establishment for customer's intent to return in 2016 and 2017. The list doesn't end there. In 2016, Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen was named Favorite Casual Dining Restaurant based on the more than 9,200 customer polls by Market Force Information. Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen beat Cracker Barrel, BJ's Brewhouse, O'Charley's, and Cheesecake Factory to bag the top spot, leading especially in attributes such as quality food and value.

At Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen, a portion of the food goes to donations

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen has been doing its bit to alleviate hunger. According to the restaurant chain's website, they donate 25,000 pounds of unused food on an average every month. This includes over 20,000 dishes that are made from scratch at their kitchens. To ensure that food reaches those in need, the chain has partnered with several non-profit organizations. For example, the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen in Spring, Texas, donates food on a weekly basis to the organization 1960 Hope Center, the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen in Tucson, Arizona, donates to Old Pueblo Community Services, and the one in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, runs a food donation drive with Kenosha Salvation Army.

Since everything is cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients at the restaurants, all that comes in excess is donated through their harvest program. As of August 2018, the chain has donated "over 100 million pounds of food — or 83.3 million meals — to nonprofits nationwide," according to Kenosha News. The donated food per month usually includes 47 percent veggies such as green beans, mashed potatoes, other veggies dishes, 30 percent soups and sauces, and 15 percent of rice, pasta and more, and 8 percent of proteins such as salmon, ribs, and chicken, as reported in the chain's website.

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen introduced a lighter menu featuring low-calorie dishes

To compensate for all the high-calorie indulgence that is the honey butter croissant and the deep-fried onion rings, the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen has a menu that's on the lighter side. All the items featured under this menu, including a loaded plate of grilled baja chicken or the seemingly heavy garlic parmesan sirloin steak, are all under 575 calories!

The menu was introduced in 2013 after acknowledging that more and more people were changing how much and what they eat for health reasons. But Robert Pesch, Cheddar's director of culinary and development, clarified that 575 was not a number that they were set on before crafting the menu. "We started with wanting to provide some lower-calorie options that would deliver on flavor and value. I was conscious about being within a framework of calories. We developed the dishes first on making sure they were where we wanted to be in flavor and presentation. We analyzed them after and got to the 575 number," he told Nation's Restaurant News.

On their website, they also have a nutritional chart that states the calories that are in each of their menu items. Those who are good at math can customize their menu taking into account the calorie count. However, the bigger challenge is avoiding the temptation to order a plate of the shiny and flaky honey butter croissants. 

A few of Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen restaurants were in the spotlight for a lack of hygiene

While it's hard to imagine a lack of hygiene in a restaurant that starts making food from scratch every morning, the fact is Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen restaurants have been in the spotlight for failing health inspections. A Cheddar's restaurant in Tamarac, Florida, had to be shut down twice in the same month after it failed health inspection and was reported to have "rodent droppings and roach issues in the kitchen area," according to Local10 News. It took four visits by the health inspector before the place was finally given the green signal to open for the public.

The Cheddar's in York, Pennsylvania, failed a surprise inspection in March 2019 after the health inspector found that the cut leafy greens, tomatoes, and sauces were stored at a higher temperature than the ideal 41 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, the floor was dirty and the plumbing system faulty. Similarly, the Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen in Overland Park, Kansas, was found to be "out of compliance" with the Kansas food safety regulations, and one in University City, Charlotte, North Carolina, scored an embarrassing C grade after an health inspection that unveiled violations including problems with employees washing hands, their slicer and mixer being soiled, and their cheese not being kept cool enough.

Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen acquired 44 restaurants in one shot

The year 2017 was an eventful one for Cheddar's Scratch Kitchen. In the first half, they expanded massively by acquiring 44 restaurants from their biggest franchisee, Kentucky-based Greer Companies. With this acquisition, Cheddar's owned 139 of its 164 restaurants.

The big acquisition was a big win for Cheddar's. For Cheddar's, the then-company president and CEO Ian Baines told Dallas Business Journal that by buying the 44 restaurants, it helped the chain gain back their footprint. The transaction also came at a point where the chain had decided not to franchise any more of its restaurants but continue to build company-owned ones.

Coming to the second half of 2017, the Cheddar's chain was acquired by Darden Restaurants Inc. While in the first half, Cheddar's worked towards integrating the newly bought 44 restaurants into its corporate family, in the second half, they were focused on integrating their restaurants with their parent company, Darden.