Say cheese! The formula of speedy service, customization, and high quality practiced by fast-casual restaurant leaders Chipotle and Panera Bread is already being widely applied to better burger chains and upscale pizza franchises. Lately, the next hot menu item being given the Chipotle treatment at restaurants, mall kiosks, and food trucks around the country is the classic comfort food, grilled cheese.
People love grilled cheese. Then again, most people can make pretty darn good grilled cheese. Doing so requires only a few ingredients (bread, cheese, butter or margarine), and very little skill. Going with a basic grilled cheese at a restaurant is akin to ordering cereal: That’s fine if that’s what you really want, but it’d be just as good—and way cheaper—if you handled the “cooking” yourself.
My colleague Josh Ozersky is one of the skeptics regarding the grilled cheese-based restaurant as a viable business concept, and here’s why:
… the sandwich needs to have what entrepreneurs call “added value”: something that will make it worthwhile to the consumer to seek it out instead of just making it at home.
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Nonetheless, the grilled cheese restaurant trend seems to be flourishing. Cheeseboy, Grilled Cheese & Co., The Melt, Melty Way, The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, and Cheesie’s Pub and Grub are among the nation’s eateries where grilled cheese is the obvious main feature on the menu. Most are fairly new, most have multiple locations, and most have big expansion plans.
The Melt, which prompted Ozersky’s swipe at grilled cheese, was opened in San Francisco in 2011 by owner Jonathan Kaplan, the founder of Pure Digital (maker of the Flip video camera). There are now eight locations, and Kaplan, who has dreamed about running a grilled cheese empire since college, envisions The Melt being as ubiquitous as Starbucks (or at least Chipotle) one day. The company’s goal is to have 500 locations by 2015, thanks partly to a high-tech online ordering system, as well as occasional happy hours featuring $1 PBR cans.
Soups, sides, desserts, and a large selection of cheeses, breads, and sandwich ingredients tend to fill out the menus at grilled cheese joints. Some are full-fledged restaurants, while others are located in kiosks, food trucks, and other to-go locations. Grilled Cheese & Co., for instance, has three locations with seating in the Baltimore area, and another planned to open for tailgaters near M&T Bank Stadium, where the NFL‘s Ravens play.
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The concept seems to be working well in food court-type areas. Quick Service Restaurant magazine recently featured Cheeseboy, whose eight locations are mostly in malls and train terminals in the Northeast. The chain, which makes signature sandwiches such as the “Cheeseboy Choco-Melt” (Cinnamon Swirl, Nutella, American Cheese), has plans for about 20 more locations to open over the next 12 months, and for growth to accelerate rapidly after that. Sandwich prices start at just $3.49 for a choice of cheese and bread, with veggie (50 cents) and meat toppings ($1) extra.
Cheesemasters Inc. is also going the mall route, selecting the Eastview Mall near Rochester, N.Y., as its first location. Cheese Wizards has gone a different way, with a grilled cheese food truck that roams the Seattle area.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.