Once called the “cheese dream”, the grilled cheese first melted American hearts in 1920. However, this comfort food staple has a place in nearly every culture – as a quesadilla, a calzone, cheese on toast and so on. While most restaurants have a basic grilled cheese variation on their menu, the homemade favorite is starting to heat up the restaurant scene as chefs and entrepreneurs turn grilled cheese into a menu standout or even a central dining idea.
Comparable to the renaissance of pizza, grilled cheese is now getting the foodie treatment. Americans eat pizza approximately once a month, but recently “chain pizza has gone upscale, with many gourmet and artisan pies available from fast-growing quick-serve chains”, says Forbes’ Carol Tice. Similarly, grilled cheese is being incorporated at an increasing amount of gourmet locations, like the Naples Grande Beach Resort in Naples, Florida.
Cincinnati-based Tom + Chee is a prime example of grilled cheese taking on pizza’s trajectory. The grilled cheese restaurant, which started as a food cart, “is rapidly growing and on par to open one franchise unit every week by the end of this year” according to Sue Gleiter. The menu includes over 25 “fancy” grilled cheese sandwiches with ingredients like goetta and BBQ potato chips.
Popping up in establishments ranging from Starbucks to fine dining, artisan-grilled cheese is even making its way into ballparks. PNC Park, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates, introduced “The Closer” this season. This grilled cheese features nine different cheeses, candied bacon and apple compote.
So, why does grilled cheese pose such a hot opportunity for restaurants? According to Flavor & The Menu, the format of bread, meat, cheese and toppings gives chefs room to play with ingredients and flavors, and simultaneously reassures customers that they won’t be getting anything too unexpected – a “combination of familiarity and surprise”. Grilled cheese serves as the new chef salad – a place for operators to use to test out unexpected ingredients and get creative.
As more consumers gravitate towards creativity and innovation, look to incorporate unique grilled cheese variations into your menu. With a seemingly endless list of possible combinations, grilled cheese is an easy addition to spice up your offerings. Some quick options include a grilled apple, cheddar and red onion panini or a gourmet grilled cheese with tomato, avocado and swiss. For more tips on tweaking your grilled cheese, check out what other chefs are doing.