The Melt grilled cheese sandwiches and soups chain, founded in 2011 by Flip Video entrepreneur Jonathan Kaplan, is looking beyond its comfort-food roots and value positioning to realize lofty expansion goals.
To meet its publicized target of operating 500 locations within its first five years, the 14-unit chain with restaurants in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles is relying on a number of elements, including:
• custom-made, radiant infrared heat presses designed to consistently deliver sandwiches with properly toasted bread and correctly melted cheese in 90 seconds or less.
• a smartphone- and tablet-computer-friendly online system — now used by 5 percent to 10 percent of the chain’s customers — that enables guests to place and pay for their orders before reaching a restaurant, and then jump the service line when they arrive.
• environment-friendly sensibilities around food sourcing, construction materials and fuel, as well as the use of 100-percent compostable or recyclable packaging.
• a “walls and wheels” expansion strategy combining conventional restaurants of about 2,000 square feet and school buses converted into 200-square-foot rolling kitchens, some of which can work multiple locations a day to take advantage of different sites’ peak traffic periods.
Paul Coletta, chief marketing officer, said The Melt Bus kitchens that debuted last September sell 100 percent of the chain’s menu and at each stop unpack portable patios with benches, umbrellas, music and free Wi-Fi service. He said 100 bus stops on leased property are envisioned as part of the chain’s plan to have 500 units open in five years.
Kaplan, who sold his Pure Digital video company in 2009, has said The Melt is about “blending old favorites with new, innovative technology to offer irresistible meal combinations in an enjoyable quick-service environment.”
That environment is noteworthy, according to Greg Dollarhyde, a foodservice veteran who now is chief executive of 16-unit Veggie Grill and executive chairman of 68-unit Zöes Kitchen.
“I’ve been to The Melt in Berkeley, [Calif.], and I think it has great trade dress,” Dollarhyde said. “The sandwiches looked really good, and it seemed to have a great appeal to the younger crowd, 9 to 32 [years old].”
The Melt’s relatively small menu offers five sandwiches prepared with all-natural cheeses and “artisan” breads, such as Fontina & Provolone on Garlic Bread and Colby Jack on Whole Grain Wheat, for $4.95, with complimentary bacon and tomato added on request. Its five soups, including Two Tomato Basil and Italian Sausage & Pepper, come in cups, $3.95, and bowls, $6.95.
Also offered are five sandwich-and-soup combos for $8.75; a weekly special combo at market price; five foods, including Steel Cut Maple Raisin oatmeal, $2.95, and Egg-In-A-Hole sandwich, $4.25; and three desserts, such as a Chocolate Marshmallow S’more Melt, $3.25, and a Daily House Baked Cookie, $1.25.
Beverages, priced $1.75 to $2.25, include coffees and teas, cane-sugar sodas, orange juice, bottled waters and organic milk. A selection of craft beers and canned champagne also is sold and featured in happy-hour deals.
Dollarhyde indicated that executives at chains with narrowly focused menus, such as The Melt, need to regularly consider such questions as, “Is there enough [menu] depth to it to make it a concept versus just a product?” and, “Can I go there and get enough things to get rid of the veto vote of people I’m bringing with me?”
For his money — literally — Silicon Valley venture capitalist Michael Moritz of Sequoia Capital, the lead investor in The Melt, isn’t worried about the chain’s narrow menu or its possible vulnerability to large rivals that add or promote grilled cheese sandwiches.
“There are lots of virtues associated with [being a] young company concentrating on doing just one thing very, very well,” Moritz said in a 2011 video interview with Forbes.com. “I think that if you have a really wonderful idea in a large market, you don’t have to do a lot else for a very long time.”