Women in Leadership: A Conversation With Senior VP Lisa McDowell at The Cheesecake Factory

This is not a review about food. I know Lebanon is squealing with delight at the debut of The Cheesecake Factory on its Mediterranean shores. For months we eagerly eyed the empty space reserved in its name atop Beirut City Centre, but alas, it never came.

Well, the Factory has finally established a perch in Verdun, adjacent to the shopping complex Verdun 730. And it is massive. Dim lights, diner-style seating booths, sports bar, cheesecake counter, and that iconic décor you’d recognize inside any of its venues worldwide.

Monday night, we ascended the red-carpeted stairs from the lobby to the main dining room. A friendly hostess visiting from the Kuwait branch showed us to our booth and within seconds, the Senior Vice President of Global Development joined us.

 The Cheesecake Factory Beirut Suburb Social Event Opening of The Cheesecake Factory in Beirut Lebanon
Photo courtesy of beiruting.com

Lisa McDowell has a 19-year history with the Beverly Hills-born company. In 1996, she left her role at TGI Friday’s to take on the challenges of Director of Training, and as she excelled, she earned promotion after promotion. At her hiring, The Cheesecake Factory counted a mere 17 locations in the US. Today, the company boasts 186 restaurants, in addition to 10 internationally-licensed outlets and 13 other-branded eateries.

McDowell arrived to Lebanon two weeks before the restaurant launch, and she and her team labored painstakingly over the preparations. The Cheesecake Factory is adamant on recreating the same spirit and experience inside every single one of its branches, so careful detail is paid to each of the 250 dishes the menu features.

Indeed, it is a menu of biblical proportions, spanning 2,500 ingredients, and believe it or not, the potatoes are sourced from the US. McDowell revealed that the specific starch content in the restaurant’s spuds is found in no other species, so until they are planted and harvested here in the Bekaa Valley, they will continue to be shipped from their American origin.

Why Lebanon, we inquired, and why Verdun? Lebanon had always been on the map, McDowell imparted, as it’s a vibrant place where good food is celebrated and cherished. Verdun is at the confluence of commercial and residential districts, and it’s situated in an upscale locale.

To a local, however, the choice of venue might be food for thought. Downtown Beirut, and Zaitunay Bay as the outermost reach of it, forms the tip of the frontier for the majority of folks flocking from outside Beirut. Hamra is popular with students and young adults, but Verdun tends to be insular, attracting denizens from within its own area. For me, a trip to Verdun would have to be deliberated, as it’s distant from the epicenter of the capital and quite a trek given the ubiquitous traffic.

The fact that no parking structure is dedicated to guests of The Cheesecake Factory, whose occupancy is 343 persons, is also reason for anxiety. I unequivocally avoid valet parking in Lebanon, and the lack of public parking is a turnoff for me.

Nevertheless, the weight of The Cheesecake Factory name; its global renown as a hotspot for delicious, super-generous dishes; and its superior service may make it a destination for those near and far. I certainly hope so, because according to McDowell, in order for Factory restaurants to be successful, they must be full throughout all operating hours of the day.

Could the Verdun outlet be a flagship site, paving the way for more branches in Lebanon? McDowell nodded in the affirmative, but decisions to expand are always methodically taken by senior management. Up next is the company’s first foray into East Asia, at Disneyland Hong Kong. Cairo, too, is soon up to bat.

OK, I’ll confess to what guilty treats we noshed on Monday night. In truth, we consulted the Skinnylicious® Menu, which offers nearly 50 items south of 600 calories. We nibbled on molasses bread as we waited for our order to arrive.

The roasted pear and blue cheese pizzette was light, crisp, and beautifully presented on a wooden cutting board. The addition of glazed pecans, caramelized onions and arugula complemented its flavors wonderfully.

Roasted pear and blue cheese pizzette

The shrimp tacos inside soft corn tortillas are innocent and delicious. They come accompanied by a marinated salad of cucumbers, carrots, and cauliflower. 

Skinnylicious soft tacos with shrimp and escabeche vegetables

Chicken samosas and crab rolls also figured in the roundup, though be warned, they are fried. Cognizant that dishes are designed for two, we split a main of tender steak medallions, herb-crusted salmon fillet, and the Factory’s signature mashed potatoes. 

Chicken samosas with cilantro dipping sauce

The meal was consummated with a decadent s’mores-inspired slice of cheesecake, complete with marshmallow pool, graham cracker bits, and whipped cream. But a few spoonfuls, and we threw in the towel (er, tablecloth). It is cloyingly sweet.

Toasted Marshmallow S'mores Galore

The Cheesecake Factory
Verdun Main Street


  1. How refreshing to read about the mind behind the Factory as well as the light menu. Nice change from the posts of the usual monster plates of gooey cheese.

    1. Thanks Farrah! Just trying to wade past all the delirium seizing the Lebanese over the restaurant's opening.

    2. You know what else is refreshing? YOUR VOCABULARY.

    3. Farrah, you got me all in a flush! Thank you SO MUCH for your kind words. I'm honored to have a faithful reader in you, and I hope you know how sincerely I look forward to reading your own blog posts.

  2. As Farrah said, it's really something to read a well written article that delves deeper than your usual foodie article you'd find here. Emphasis on well written.

  3. By here I mean lebanon, not your blog obviously.

    1. Niami, I'm so honored by your sweet words. Thanks from the bottom of my heart for following the blog, and please keep the input coming!


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