Fall 2015 Three Unique Grilled Cheese Concepts Thrive

Tom+Chee, Cheeseboy and Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese put their own spin on the classic grilled cheese sandwich.

“Most people have a positive association with grilled cheese,” explains Marty Boyer, marketing director for Tom+Chee, a franchise operation with 31 locations in 16 states, including Newport on the Levee, an urban retail center in Newport, Kentucky.

But what’s helped elevate the Cincinnati-based company move past the not-so-new concept of melted cheese sandwiched between two slices of bread are appearances on the TV show Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs woo investors, and the Travel Channel’s Man V. Food Nation.

And the grilled cheese concept is only getting hotter: “We’ll grow to 50-plus [locations] by the end of the year and double up the next,” says Boyer.

From tent to table

Cheeseboy_tomato-basil-sandwichNot bad for a company spawned under a tent in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square in 2009, seamlessly selling 6,500 grilled-cheese sandwiches. The concept was so successful, says co-founder Corey Ward, that the first brick-and-mortar store opened a year later, followed by a second six months after that. New locations are approved with an eye on heavy foot traffic, corner units and good signage, says Ward.

It’s a neat rags-to-riches story. “We didn’t have any money to open a store and we didn’t have any money to get a food truck. But we had enough money to get a tent,” says Ward, who pooled his money with another couple and his wife for a total of $2,400. The four—all in their late 30s and early 40s—continue to run the business.

Of the 15 signature sandwiches plus a build-your-own option, BBQ + Bacon is the most popular. BBQ chips are tucked into white bread along with American cheese and bacon. Building off that childhood whimsy are other jaw-dropping eats, such as eight “fancy grilled-cheese donuts” (among the choices are Barbara Blue, with blueberry compote, ham and Brie). Words like “awesome” pepper the ceiling in each store and bright colors are everywhere. “We’re looking for it to be fun, to remind you of childhood,” says Ward.

Nostalgia drives the menu

GreenspansThe-ChampSimilarly, Cheeseboy—a franchise anchored in the Northeast, with eight stores in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Boston’s South Station Train Terminal, and headquarters in Boston—taps into nostalgia. “Grilled cheese is such an ubiquitous process that Americans and those across the world have enjoyed their entire lives,” says founder Michael Inwald, who got the idea in 2005. But it took until 2009—and a leave of absence from Yale University—to kick-start the concept.

Each store ranges in size from 250 to 2,000 square feet, filling kiosks, travel plazas, in-line stores and fast-casual eateries. A menu of melted sandwiches joins soups, desserts and gourmet salads, including the popular pecorino kale.

Trendy grilled cheese

Naturally, Los Angeles is also knee-deep in the grilled-cheese food trend, but L.A.-based Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese takes it a step further by partnering with celebrity chef Eric Greenspan of Maré and The Roof on Wilshire, both in Los Angeles. Co-founder Jim Ulstead hit on the grilled-cheese sandwich at his former eatery, The Foundry on Melrose, which attracted a 20s and 30s clientele. “We were on Melrose in Hollywood and cheese plates can be intimidating … they are typically purchased by people who know wine,” he explains. Next, the chef took a starch and fromage and voila! Grilled-cheese sandwiches debuted and quickly became a top seller.

A three-month Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese pop-up at Westfield Century City last spring dovetailed with the popularity of a year-old store on hip Melrose Avenue, where gluten-free bread and vegan cheese are available. “One of the reasons we did the pop-up is to experience the mall environment. It was a massive success. Our goal is to open up another location in this calendar year,” says Ulstead. “We’re definitely earmarking downtown L.A. for that second location.”

In an era where diners practically demand health-conscious options, salads are on the menu at all three of these concepts. “If you have three friends coming, not all might want grilled cheese,” says Ulstead. (Although the grilled-cheese concept doesn’t usually stray too far: “croutons” at Greenspan’s Grilled Cheese are mini
grilled-cheese sandwiches, for example.) And alongside the gooey-cheese sandwiches are a variety of vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options. Tom+Chee brands its tomato-soup recipe just as proudly as its grilled-cheese sandwiches and there is a commitment to cook from scratch. “We don’t have freezers, fryers or microwaves,” says Boyer, pointing to the Pesto + Turkey sandwich, where the meat is roasted in-house and sunflower seeds woven into the homemade pesto.

“People are looking for comfort food, in general,” says Inwald. “We can cater to those who are health-conscious and also those who are looking for a little bit of indulgence.” Grass-fed steak, all-natural breads and non-processed dairy (cream, cheese and butter in the macaroni and cheese, for instance) drive the menu at Cheeseboy. “There’s no powder in anything we produce,” says Inwald. “It’s all real food.” Another authentic angle to Cheeseboy is that a portion of all proceeds are donated to Serious Fun Camps, started by Paul Newman to help send children with chronic and life-threatening illnesses to camp. “We do believe sincerely that business is not just about driving profitability,” says Inwald. “We are a very family-friendly brand.”

Kristine Hansen

Kristine Hansen lives in Wisconsin and writes about travel, food, drinks (wine, beer, coffee and tea) and ways to live a "green" life. She is also co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Coffee & Tea. Her articles have appeared or are forthcoming in Gourmet, Wine Enthusiast, Budget Travel, Town & Country, Eating Well, Audubon, Midwest Living, Body + Soul, Spa, Yoga Journal, Time Out Chicago, The Onion, NWA World Traveler, Delta Sky, American Way, US Airways Magazine and Hemispheres.
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