A relationship worth the risk
by Jeff Kramer - Wednesday, April 23rd, 2014
Don't feel bad, Syracuse Cheesecake Factory.

How would you react if you had a close friend who behaved in a revolting, hurtful way that violated the most basic tenets of civilization? Would you run from that person, or would you offer heaping portions of love and support because that’s what a true friend does in a crisis?

There was no debate on my end when news broke that our gleaming new Cheesecake Factory at Destiny USA wasn’t so gleaming after all. The moment I learned that the 2-month-old gorge-a-torium had failed multiple health code inspections and that two patrons were suspected of getting ill from the food there, I knew I had to be there for my corporate-chain pal. To flush away our shared history would be wrong.

You might recall that it was me — not Anderson Cooper, not Bill Moyers — who was first in line on that glorious Feb. 11 for CK’s local grand opening, after years of prayers and false alarms. What a day it was. There were balloons, corporate bigwigs and a giddy sense that anything was possible, including a small but statistically meaningful surge in myocardial infarction in the four-county area.

When the restaurant finally opened for lunch, I invited the No. 2 guy in line — Gary Philips, of Liverpool, a long-time Cheesecake Factory fanatic — to dine with me. We ate like kings and promised to do it again soon. That is why I reached out to Gary last week amid the screaming accusations of undercooked chicken and lukewarm holding vessels of creamy marinara anthrax sauce. I wanted Gary to join me again at the Cheesecake Factory, this time as a public affirmation of our devotion to the place.

Let them eat cheesecake

Jeff Kramer: First in line at the Cheesecake Factory’s opening.

Turns out, Gary was, um, busy. He answered my email invitation with complicated travel plans that pretty much precluded eating at the Cheesecake Factory.

“I just had a big late lunch at Stella’s,” he wrote. “I could join you this evening if you like and have a drink while you eat, but I doubt that I could eat anything.”

Coward!

Gary’s reluctance rattled me, but it also opened new possibilities. Maybe it made more sense for me to eat at the restaurant while monitored by a skilled medical professional, especially one with a background in infectious diseases.

Dr. Cynthia Morrow came immediately to mind. Her schedule would be wide open. The former county health commissioner resigned recently over the naive view that mothers and babies matter more than the county executive’s political ambitions.

“Thanks for thinking of me,” Morrow wrote. “As much as I would love to go to the Cheesecake Factory, I am going to try to keep a low profile — and I am going out of town. Sounds like a great story though.”

Nor did my Upstate Medical University connections bear fruit — properly handled or otherwise. With all the turn-downs, I faced the prospect of eating alone and — yes — dying alone in a dehydrated heap in the Cheesecake Factory men’s room. No one wants that.

Thank goodness I had a backup plan.

“Come on, girls. We’re going to the Cheesecake Factory,” I announced. “We’re going to learn about being loyal to someone who has a problem.”

Miranda, the older one, wanted to know if the people who had gotten sick had come down with diarrhea or vomiting. I told her I wasn’t sure. Miranda looked troubled, which is exactly how teenage girls are supposed to look anyway. She agreed to go.

Lily put up more resistance.

“I’m kind of scared,” she said.  “I don’t want to get sick.”

I calmly explained to her that the restaurant had more or less passed its most recent inspection. I also assured her in a loving, nurturing tone that if she did not go with me, I would always love her sister more.

“Can we get cheesecake?” Lily asked.

“Yes,” I said.

That settled it. An hour or so later, the three of us were happily chowing down at a bustling Cheesecake Factory. Clearly, I was not the only customer voting with my feet, proving that it takes more than the runs to stop Central New Yorkers. We are one tough bunch!

I ordered a dirty martini and the catfish dinner. Miranda boldly went with the shrimp scampi. Lily ordered the massive Sheila’s Chicken Salad, named after a young Cheesecake Factory assistant manager who died in 1996 of botulism poisoning.

That was a joke. I don’t know who Sheila is.

We had a wonderful dinner. The only time I felt vaguely ill is when I saw the bill: 91 bucks.

Call it the price of friendship.

Quick Take:

Don’t feel bad, Syracuse Cheesecake Factory. An Atlanta-area CK also failed inspection shortly after opening, in December. Upon reinspection, it passed, barely. Conclusion: The media needs to back off these stories. Cheesecake Factories are SUPPOSED to be gross when they first open.

Jeff KramerEmail Jeff Kramer at jeffmkramer@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JKintheCuse.

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