Melt With You

24 09 2011

I love theme restaurants. OK, let me back up. I love restaurants. My monthly credit card statements read like a travelogue. My Facebook Wall is littered with check-ins (I am Lord and Master of Red Robin, just so you know). But it is the themed ones that really draw me. Done right, a thematic dining experience is worth its weight in calories. It’s eatertainment.

Which is why I can’t wait to stop in at The Melt, a new chain of diners specializing in grilled cheese.

Grilled cheese? Isn’t that about as low as you can go on the food chain? Last place in creativity. Ingredient-poor. Can’t-think-of-anything-else-to-do.

Yeah, that’s it. But be sure to add comfort food. We all do them, and if you summon enough epicurean energy, grilled cheese sandwiches can actually be a dining adventure.

For the record, my all-time fave grilled cheese was at 3 Floyds Brewpub in Munster IN (cheese, apple slices, pecans…sheer gustatorial delight). I know that this kitchen staple can be turned into an upscale pleasure.

The Melt is trying to capitalize on an American hallmark, add a splash of pizzazz, yet still keep it cheap. Started by high-tech entrepreneur Jonathan Kaplan (founder of the Flip videocamera), there could be as many as 500 stores within five years.

Of course, the restaurant space is crowded. Very crowded. And our urban landscapes are littered with the shuttered hulks of restaurants that didn’t make it. But we Americans love to eat out, and hope springs eternal in the stomachs of food service entrepreneurs.

Critics may rightfully questions whether grilled cheese is too narrow. And it would be a valid criticism, because it has been about five years since Cereality launched amid much hype and hoopla, only to be languishing today with only three locations. Cereal is as much a comfort food as is a tasty grilled cheese. Making it available as a cereal bar (little different from today’s second wave of fro-yo shops) seemed novel, but so far has had few takers.

And even though cereal is something many of us eat at non-breakfast hours (OK, confess…how many of you have had a Cap’N Crunch nightcap more than once?), the idea of paying $4-5 for a bowl of slurple has not resonated with the American public. So will $5.75 work for a basic sandwich?

That’s a question all would-be franchisees must ask themselves.

At its core, The Melt is a soup-and-sandwich boutique. The primary difference is that everything is based on one thing. Kaplan obviously has the dough (pun intended) to launch The Melt (his company that made Flip was bought for $590 million by Cisco in 2009, and then completely shut down in 2011). But financial backing is only one piece of the puzzle. There has to actually be demand for the product.

But I think that Kaplan is on to something here, even if the concept is self-limiting. While a bowl of cereal might be an occasional evening diversion, The Melt appeals to appetites for two of the three primary feeding times of the day. If I were a gambler, I’d put my money on this before a bowl of soggy flakes. And you can put that on my Facebook Wall.

Dr “Make Mine Sourdough” Gerlich


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