Grilled cheese is a hot opportunity these days. The traditional favorite offers chefs a blank canvas with which to experiment with a variety of breads, cheeses and other creative fillings. Plus, it’s a sandwich rich in the to-be-underestimated nostalgia factor. “Grilled cheese sandwiches are one of those foods everybody has some kind of emotional connection to—from the treat you enjoyed on a snow day as a kid, to the sandwich you could make with an iron back in college.” That’s the opinion of Corey Ward, co-founder of Tom + Chee, a chain of 33 fast-casual restaurants focused on grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
From tent to Shark Tank
The thriving enterprise began as a food tent in Cincinnati, Ohio and has since received recognition by many foodies, as well as an appearance on ABC’s Shark Tank. “We’re a place for people who are still kids at heart,” Ward says. “We mix classic comfort food with fresh ingredients, healthy alternatives and a flair for the unexpected.”
The menu includes over 25 grilled cheese sandwiches with add-in ingredients like barbequed potato chips and goetta, Cincinnati’s signature meat-and-grain sausage. There’s even a mac & cheese sandwich, which includes gooey pasta between two slices of grilled white bread. “We were offering mac & cheese as a side, but it wasn’t selling. Once we grilled it in a sandwich, it became a menu mainstay,” Ward says.
Doughnuts yes, bologna no
One of the most creative offerings at Tom + Chee is the Grilled Cheese Doughnut Sandwich. “It’s a yeast glazed doughnut, sliced in half,” Ward explains. “We put the glazed side on the grill so the glaze caramelizes as the cheddar melts. It’s served ‘inside out,’ and it’s a perfect salty-sweet combination.” Other dessert-driven doughnut-and-grilled-cheese variations include Choco Bacon Bliss, with bacon, chocolate pieces, chocolate mascarpone and mozzarella, and Blueberry Blue, with blueberry compote, blue cheese and lemon mascarpone.
The one thing the menu will never feature? Fried bologna as a sandwich add-in. “Someone asks for it every couple of weeks, but we’ve had it on the menu and no one orders it. They’ll ask about it, but not eat it,” he says.
Add it to your menu
If you’re adding a grilled cheese special to your menu, Ward thinks it’s a good idea to start by sticking to the classic flavor profile. “Don’t go too crazy at the beginning,” he suggests. As a guide, he points to the Tom + Chee signature sandwich with white bread, mozzarella, sliced tomatoes and a balsamic-reduction and garlic seasoning.