What could The Cheesecake Factory and DoorDash have done differently?
Cheesecake Factory Free Halloween Cheesecake
Credit: Cheesecake Factory

So as you may have heard, the Cheesecake Factory decided to celebrate its 40th birthday this week by partnering with DoorDash to give away 40,000 slices of free cheesecake. Sounds like a pretty great deal, right?

Turns out it may have been a little too good of a deal. As will sometimes happen with offers of free, on-demand food, things ended up getting a bit hectic. A number of Cheesecake Factories, DoorDash deliverers, and cheesecake wanters all had to contend with chaos or disappointment. Though there’s no single magic fix that might’ve made things better, let’s take a closer look at why things might have worked out the way they did and what could potentially be done differently.

Perhaps the first problem in this fiasco was the introduction of artificial scarcity. The promotion kicked off at 11:30 a.m., and under two hours later (by 1:18 p.m.), every single one of the allotted free cheesecake slices on the east coast had been claimed. That’s a pretty limited window of time, especially for the many cheesecake fans who waited until lunch to order.

With The Cheesecake Factory and DoorDash saying that an additional 20,000 slices were ultimately given away, it sounds like the initial decision to give away 40,000 was somewhat arbitrary. Maybe offering a deal within a clearly-defined window of time would have kept DoorDash and the Cheesecake Factory’s mentions from turning into a hive of hangry outbursts. I mean, it is a factory that cranks out cheesecake after all. Why not just up production?

Then there’s the issue of coordination between Cheesecake Factory and DoorDash at the point of transaction. Despite the publicized promo, it sounds like Cheesecake Factory was—naturally—prioritizing patrons who wanted to sit down (and pay) for a meal over the DoorDash deliverers who were there to grab free cheesecake and then bounce. That led to long wait times, frustrated DoorDash personnel, and an incident in Arlington, Virginia, that involved fights and an arrest.

So how could those wait times have been avoided? If you’re a restaurant that knows you’ll be giving away a lot of something on a particular day, it would make sense to plan ahead so plenty of that particular item is ready to go at any given time. It might involve making tough choices (like cutting free cheesecake options down from 30-plus to a few classics), but it makes such an event much less likely to disrupt your ordinary flow of business. There won’t be a perfect allocation of free treats, but it can’t hurt to try to anticipate demand before it happens.

Of course, no matter how much of something you’re giving away for how long, there may simply not be a robust enough distribution pipeline capable of making everyone happy. Even in a world filled with ready cheesecake, it’s possible (likely, even), that there wouldn’t have been enough DoorDash delivers to keep up with demand. Fixing that would involve tackling some bigger, more probing questions about wages, economic incentives and the nature of the gig economy that are a bit tougher to tackle.

In the end, it’s hard to make any kind of big giveaway run perfectly. The Cheesecake Factory and DoorDash still ended up winning because of the free publicity that their giveaway earned them. Are people who missed out on free cheesecake pisse? Probably. Are some of them going to order from The Cheesecake Factory sometime soon anyway? Definitely.

Above all, it’s important to remember this: nothing in life—not even cheesecake—is free.