Taking the Cake: Sundance had pursued Cheesecake Factory for many years

By Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net

The Cheesecake Factory had been on the white board over at Sundance Square management for some time.

It was one of more than 1,000 restaurants and retailers that Sundance CEO Johnny Campbell says the company maintains on its “hit list” and speaks to regularly. It’s a multi-tier list, ranging from targets that Sundance believes it should go after now to ones it thinks may fit where Sundance will be years from now.

“Most of them are ones 10 years ago that we knew we could not have supported a reason to come, but we knew one day we would,” Campbell said. The list “forces us to think about the future merchandising of Sundance Square in the context of what we think Sundance Square will look like.”

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The Cheesecake Factory, the popular international chain that just opened its first Fort Worth store Dec. 9 in Sundance Square to big buzz, had been on the list for a long time, Campbell said.

“Ten years ago, Cheesecake Factory had absolutely no interest in Sundance Square and probably very little interest in Fort Worth, Texas,” Campbell said.

But downtown has continued to grow, and the opening last year of the new Sundance Plaza, festively lit and ringed with office spaces, restaurants and shops, added to the draw. Sales generated by Sundance’s 500,000 square feet of retail space were up 19.6 percent through October, compared with the same period last year, Campbell said.

The Cheesecake Factory, a $2 billion-a-year Calabasas, Calif., company, has grown to 185 stores from the one that founder David Overton opened in 1978 in Beverly Hills to showcase his mother’s homemade cakes.

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The company thinks it fits well downtown with its destination draw, broad appetizer, entree and dessert menu, late-night dining and moderate prices. The restaurant, located in part of the former Barnes & Noble space, faces Bass Hall, providing an easy dining option for theater-goers.

The company’s other stores in the region have done well, said Alethea Rowe, company spokeswoman. North Texas locations include Arlington, Southlake, Dallas, Allen and Frisco.

“There’s nothing like The Cheesecake Factory here, and the revitalization of the area makes it a great area for us to be in,” said Rowe, who was in Fort Worth for training exercises leading to the opening.

The company has experience in urban centers, where about one quarter of its stores are located, Rowe said. Downtown Fort Worth’s publicly subsidized free parking and Sundance’s free valet with merchant validation fill the need for parking, she said.

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In a sign of how popular Sundance has become in just the last year, Campbell said, Sundance’s valets parked 375 cars on Dec. 8 (a Monday). Sundance started the service, operated by Fort Worth’s Rent A Frog Valet, during construction last year, and it parked 30-50 cars per day then, Campbell said. Today, it has seven stations.

Sundance has been touting the likelihood that The Cheesecake Factory will do $10 million a year in sales, the company’s per-store average. If it does, that would make it Sundance’s second or third highest-volume restaurant, Campbell said.

“Ten years ago, we were littered with 2 and 3 million dollar [a year] restaurants,” Campbell said. “Today, we’re littered with 5, 6, 10 and 12 million-dollar restaurants.”

Sundance isn’t trolling for a lot of new restaurants. It already has a broad selection of places to eat and drink and is shifting its focus to soft goods.

But The Cheesecake Factory substantially broadens its restaurant offering, Campbell said.

One new example of how Sundance manages its hit list is the departure of the Cabo Grande Mexican restaurant across from the Renaissance Worthington hotel. Sundance’s near-term plan called for leasing to another restaurant, but the longer-term one called for soft goods, Campbell said.

Sundance jumped its near-term plan, he said, and instead signed the 14-store Overland Sheepskin Co., a luxury retailer of jackets, coats, boots and accessories. The store is scheduled to open before Christmas.

The Cheesecake Factory is also a major piece in the pedestrian-friendly revival of the Commerce Street corridor through Sundance Square and south past Bass Hall. The corridor includes new restaurants and stores around the year-old Sundance Plaza and in the adjacent Gainsco Building, for which Sundance handles the ground-floor retail leasing.

“We have totally reawakened a corridor that really was not a strong corridor,” Campbell said.

Sundance is looking for apparel sellers for the 8,700 square feet of remaining ground-floor space in the former Barnes & Noble location, and is open to office and retail tenants for the space above, Campbell said.

Retail occupancy in Sundance Square is 96 percent, Campbell said. Two of the four available spaces are in the new Cassidy Building, which just received its temporary certificate of occupancy, Campbell said.