This is part of the 2013 NRN 50 special report, "Breakout Brands." This year NRN takes a look at 50 brands that are some of today's hottest emerging concepts. Meet the concepts shaking up the restaurant marketplace.
Many restaurateurs have opened grilled cheese restaurants, but Michael Inwald had a vision.
“The goal was not to open a mom-and-pop grilled cheese shop, but to open a fully operational grilled cheese system,” he said in June of 2011, when the eight-month-old chain had just launched its third location.
Now, with eight units in operation and plans to franchise, Inwald is tweaking the Boston-based concept as he prepares to step up expansion.
“Grilled cheese might be a simple idea, but running a grilled cheese restaurant [chain] is no easy feat,” he said. “We face the same challenge as any QSR.” But being smaller and lesser known, he said, Cheeseboy doesn’t have the purchasing power to get the best price for its products.
“As we grow, our cost of goods will go down,” he said. “Right now our focus is on building a phenomenal experience.”
Aaron Kagan, editor of the Boston edition of the popular foodie website Eater.com, said, “My sense is that they are tapping into the specific grilled cheese corner of the increasingly popular comfort-food world.
“However,” he continued, “I don’t think they’re very popular with the serious food lovers or ‘food nerds.’”
But Inwald said he is not trying to win over food fetishists.
“We specialize in high-quality, mainstream grilled cheese sandwiches in a high-traffic environment,” he said, noting that his flagship restaurant is located at South Station, a major Boston transportation hub. “Our focus is not on being too fancy or gourmet. We might not have Brie or Gruyère cheese, but we have top-level American, Cheddar, Muenster, Swiss and provolone.”
Cheeseboy got its start as a business project when Inwald was a student at the Yale School of Management. At the time, he practically lived on grilled cheese sandwiches, earning the nickname “cheese boy.” So the decision to develop a grilled cheese-based business was a logical one.
After conducting market research in which he asked people where they purchased their grilled cheese sandwiches, he discovered that most ordered them at diners or from kids’ menus.
Inwald’s academic project gave rise to a real-world business. He opened Grilled Cheese to Go booths at state fairs in Connecticut in 2009, followed by a location at the Connecticut Post Mall in Westfield, Conn. The first actual Cheeseboy restaurant opened at South Station in October 2010.
Cheeseboy’s menu is mostly the mix-and-match format of many fast-casual restaurants: Pick your cheese, pick your bread, and add toppings — such as bacon, , ham, pepperoni, tomato, basil, jalapeños, pickles or spinach.
Soups, macaroni and cheese, and desserts are also offered.
Inwald recently added several sandwiches based on combinations that customers asked for frequently, and the chain also is testing a prototype menu with more signature sandwiches, although Inwald said many customers enjoy making their own choices.
“We’ve learned that the customer is almost always right,” he said. “Not in terms of taking care of a customer if they’re upset, but that responding to their feedback is probably the best thing you can do because it turns out to be accurate. And if one person says it, 10 people are thinking it.
“When they give you feedback,” he said, “it’s incredibly valuable.”
Contact Bret Thorn at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Follow him on Twitter: @FoodWriterDiary