The idea of grilled cheese is nothing new. We just took a comfort food and figured out how to make it right, says Tom+Chee co-founder Trew Quackenbush.
By taking the traditional formula of simple tomato soup, white bread, butter, and American cheese, and then giving it a gourmet twist, the brand has taken the US fast casual dining market by storm.
From a tent next to an ice rink on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square in 2009, the company has grown to spread across the US. Thanks in part to its innovative menu of unique grilled cheese sandwiches and doughnuts, coupled with a wave of publicity which culminated in a successful pitch on ABC’s Shark Tank (the US version of Dragons’ Den), 12 strong Tom+Chee now has plans to grow to 200 stores in the next five years.
From a tent to big intent
The idea for the brand was born in a backyard cook-off in the summer of 2009 when Quackenbush and his friend Corey Ward discussed opening a restaurant. We had many talks about what we could do, recalls Quackenbush. We settled on grilled cheese because it is executable, easily trainable and repeatable. When we started out we didn’t have enough money for a restaurant or even a food truck. However, we did have enough for a griddle and a tent.
The duo, together with their wives, juggled shifts at the pop up tent while still working full time jobs. Throughout the following year, traffic picked up and in December 2010,363 days after first pitching the tent, the brand opened its debut bricks ‘n’ mortar unit. With a full kitchen, Tom+Chee broadened its menu offering to include more than 25 eclectic grilled cheese sandwiches, as well as three versions of tomato soup, a daily changing variety of specials, and grilled cheese doughnuts.
The most special thing is the care we take in sourcing and choosing our ingredients, adds Quackenbush, using no freezers, no microwaves, no presses, no magic technology.
The concept was an overnight success. Tom+Chee was named one of Cincinnati’s Best New Restaurants and its signature grilled cheese doughnut was voted Best Unorthodox Donut by Cincinnati newspaper CityBeat and received plaudits from several national media outlets, including The Huffington Post.
Within months of opening our first store, we received a call to open at Newport on the Levee, a mixed use entertainment complex just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, says Quackenbush.
In May 2012 we opened our first franchise store in Louisville, Kentucky, where we now have three locations, and in August 2012 we opened our third Cincinnati location.
Out of the shark tank
The group built awareness with Groupon deals, aggressive local store marketing, and appearances on TV shows such as Man V Food.
Then, last May, Quackenbush and Ward appeared on Shark Tank and netted a $600,000 (355,893 [pounds sterling]) deal for a 30% stake in the business with real estate investor Barbara Corcoran and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. Although the deal never materialised the exposure for the company was priceless.
Not only did their TV appearance boost sales at the restaurants, it also led to operators wanting to open their own Tom+Chee franchise. Things blew up, Quackenbush admits. We received more than 16,000 enquiries from potential franchisees all over the world. They were from all 50 states, plus Canada, Ireland, the Philippines, Vietnam, Dubai, and the Czech Republic.
Tom+Chee’s success is impressive, yet it is even more so considering the limitations of the venture. Grilled cheese is the ultimate US comfort food, filling diners with happy memories of childhood. So, reinventing an old staple with wildly modern creations was potentially risky.
However, the risk has paid off. Items such as the Hippy+Chee (hummus, cucumbers, mixed greens, tomato and cheddar on wheat); the Swiss+Shroom (grilled onions, mushrooms and Swiss on rye); or the Grilled Mac+Cheese (macaroni and cheddar cheese on white) have proved to be a winning formula.
Other menu items include a variety of tomato soups, including classic, chunky tomato and basil, and creamy tomato and basil. Seasonal specials, meanwhile, include blue cheese chilli and tomato gazpacho.
Then there are seven sandwiches layered with potato crisps, such as the Italian (salt and vinegar crisps, pepperoni, ham and mozzarella on sourdough) and more than nine different grilled cheese doughnuts, with ingredients including brie, mascarpone, and blueberry compote, all served on glazed doughnuts. The average spend is $8 (5 [pounds sterling]).
We stand out because we are making great food with fresh ingredients, and we have fun, says Quackenbush. This isn’t stuffy adult grilled cheese. We do grilled cheese for the kid at heart.
On the franchise trail
Tom+Chee now has 12 units across six states, with 150 stores under franchise contract in 20 states. By the end of 2014, the founders predict they will be opening Tom+Chee shops at the rate of one a week. In five years we should be at 200 plus stores, says Quackenbush, adding that international expansion will be on the cards eventually, but only when we are ready.
Franchising is central to Tom+Chee’s rapid expansion plans. Franchisees can buy the rights to open a restaurant for $35,000 (21,000 [pounds sterling]) with Tom+Chee providing marketing and operations advice in return for a 6% royalty fee on sales.
We’re interested in meeting people excited about grilled cheese and chasing their own American dream. We feel like we’re building a family, say the founders.