Skip to Content

The Cheesecake Factory plans a foothold in China

FORTUNE — The Cheesecake Factory is bringing its giant portions, massive menu, and namesake dessert to East Asia.

Today the company is set to announce a licensing agreement with Hong Kong-based restaurant operator Maxim’s Caterers Limited. Under the terms of the deal, Maxim’s will open a minimum of 14 restaurants over 10 years in Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China, with the possibility of also entering Japan and South Korea, along with Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand in Southeast Asia.

“We have the name recognition, we’ve have had it for years, and it’s just a next step in having The Cheesecake Factory grow into the future,” CEO David Overton says of the company’s international expansion.

MORE: 5 Ways companies can leverage pop-up stores

Maxim’s hasn’t identified a site for the region’s first Cheesecake Factory yet but is currently looking in Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong. Overton says he is hoping the first will be in Hong Kong.

The Cheesecake Factory’s entry into East Asia will mark the third international market for the company. In 2012 it opened in Dubai in the Middle East, which Fortune detailed last year, and is set to launch in Guadalajara, Mexico, in July, which kicks off its Latin American efforts. The order of new markets wasn’t intentional, Overton noted, adding that it was more about finding the right partners. The deal with Maxim’s has been in the works for a year and a half.

Part of Maxim’s appeal for Overton is the work the company is doing for Starbucks in the region. Overton thought that if Starbucks likes Maxim’s and their coffeehouses are beautiful and well run, the company would be a good candidate. Along with licensing, Maxim’s other operations include running bakeries and large Chinese restaurants.

MORE: Success of AT&T-DirecTV deal hinges on rural America

Partnering internationally is a major shift for the California-based restaurant company. The Cheesecake Factory, which is known for its consistency and attention to detail, owns and operates all of its restaurants in the U.S. At one time Overton believed the chain would never go international because of the concept’s complexities—it has a massive menu. But Overton says that with each of his international partners, he has found the right formula: “They all replicate concepts versus create concepts,” he says.

The Cheesecake Factory doesn’t just hand over the keys to its licensees. Overton and his team are involved in getting new markets off the ground. For all restaurant openings, including those in the U.S., the company sends over a group of designated trainers to get the sites and the staff ready. That practice will continue in East Asia.

Each market has had a different set of challenges: Supply chain was an issue for the Middle East, while Mexico required making sure the menu’s Mexican food was authentic. In China the menu may require more tweaking, but to start with Maxim’s will stay as true to the original concept as possible and then make changes as necessary. Overton is open to making alterations, such as giving customers the choice of rice instead of fries. “We’ll see what people ask for and what they want,” he says, “and if we can accommodate them, we will.”

MORE: Europe’s economy: still in the danger zone

A potential concern for the Cheesecake Factory in China is its historically low consumption of dairy products, compared to the U.S. and other western markets. But in recent years, demand for dairy has been on the rise, and the company says cheesecake is now a very popular dessert. For Overton the biggest selling point was that Maxim’s felt comfortable starting with the Cheesecake Factory’s regular menu.

The company believes it will translate across the Pacific because of its success in communities with a heavy Asian influence—Hawaii and San Francisco, for example. In these restaurants, customers often eat family style. “It’s the same in the Middle East,” Overton says. “Almost all the plates go in the middle of the table.” Overton didn’t design the food to be eaten that way, but the giant portions lend themselves to sharing. “I feel very good that Asia can learn to love The Cheesecake Factory,” he says.