When I first got on the phone Wednesday with Jonathan Kaplan (not pictured above), founder of high-end grilled cheese restaurant chain The Melt, I immediately let him know who's boss. Sure, Kaplan sold his startup Flip Cam to Cisco for a cool $590 million in 2009, but Cisco just killed it. And sure his latest venture, The Melt, announced yesterday at AllThingsD, is backed by James Beard award-winning designers, Michelin Star award-winning chefs, a team of kitchen workflow engineers, and millions of dollars from Sequoia Capital. But when it comes to grilled cheese sandwiches, this is my turf, baby.
I'm a veteran of the grilled cheese industry in New York City—with a raging former cocaine habit and three years of butter-knife scars to show for it. A one-time purveyor of a grilled cheese startup myself, I've dealt with draconian health codes, fought off gluttonous stoners and cheapskate suppliers, mended George Foreman Grills like MacGyver, torn eviction notices to shreds, pounded lazy busboys and dishwashers into shape with an iron fist harder than aged pecorino, perfected a handless 15-second croque-monsieur, and nearly strangled to death my treasurer, whom I suspected of embezzling funds from the tip jar. Yes, I'm from the school of hard knocks—a school made of pasteurized Kraft Singles where Jon Scieszka is required reading and where we see the Virgin Mary in every sandwich served. But even I had to admit: The Melt has flavor.
Kaplan, who plans to expand the chain to 500 restaurants nationwide by 2015, has taken a unique approach that heavily leverages technology. A location-based app allows customers to order on-the-go, and streamlines purchases and pickup times through QR codes, which can be scanned at Melt locations. Rather than employ a George Foreman Grill, Kaplan has developed his own lean, mean, fat-reducing grilling machine. "We have a machine that cooks grilled cheese in under a minute—it's a very high quality piece of industrial design," he says.
He's certainly entering the industry at the perfect time. Based on insider figures and charts from one grilled cheese venue—clearly and scientifically and unequivocally a representative sample of the entire industry—I can tell you that sales are booming. Between 2006 and 2008, earnings from the grilled cheese industry shot up roughly 40%, before plummeting the following year by about 80% to record lows. (Incidentally, this is also the year when I helmed the grilled cheese operation. However, contrary to popular belief, any drop in sales was due entirely to the recession. And my treasurer, whom, I swear, was embezzling cash. Believe this.) But by the next season, sales had tripled, and have continued to rocket, shooting up 230% in the last year alone.
Still, while the industry is booming and Kaplan's technological approach might one day prove successful, there's always the possibility that traditional techniques and delivery methods might continue to outweigh modern bells and whistles. After all, just look to another fellow grilled cheese industry luminary: Ronnie, of New York's Lower East Side, whose underground grilled cheese delivery business is the stuff of legend. Perhaps that drug-dealer mentality and college-dorm-room-style entrepreneurship is exactly what this industry needs. Perhaps Michelin Star and James Beard award-winning chefs and designers are overkill for a sandwich of such delicate and simple proportions.
"Well, look, Chipotle's worth $9 billion," says Kaplan. "I think if you put an all-star team together, and you have a product that makes people happy that is affordable and simple, then I think you can have a multibillion-dollar business. It's not overkill at all. I know Ronnie well. The idea that Ronnie makes grilled cheese or that [charitable organization] Feel Good makes grilled cheese to make the world a better place—I think that those are really interesting and novel concepts. But we're trying to build a real business here. I want to take this company public, and I want to make my investors tons of money, and I want to make billions of people smile every day."
Touché, Kaplan. But I have just one last question—the true test of any grilled cheese connoisseur: What is your grilled cheese technique?
"I don't really have a technique for grilling a grilled cheese at all," he admits, with a laugh. "The only thing I can say is fast and hot-panned."
No technique? What about a preferred bread and cheese combination?
"Whatever is in the fridge, and whatever is in the bread drawer," he says.
By the mold of Roquefort! That answer would get you eaten alive in the competitive and cutthroat world of the New York City underground grilled cheese scene.
Luckily, The Melt is launching on the easily impressed West Coast.
[Image: Flickr user Fabbriciuse]