Web Exclusive | June 2011 | By Daniel P. Smith

Tech Phenom to Open Fast Casual

A techie enters the foodie world by combining modern technology with comfort food.

The Melt will offer grilled cheese and soup combos.
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To many, the presentation seemed like a practical joke. But earlier this month, Jonathan Kaplan, the businessman who helped create the Flip camera, took the stage of the D9 conference and announced his latest venture: a fast-casual, tech-heavy grilled-cheese concept called The Melt.

Entrepreneurs have entered the restaurant industry from other industries plenty of times before. But someone of Kaplan’s stature turning his attention to the quick-service world—and announcing it in a room full of techies at D9, The Wall Street Journal’s annual gathering of all things digital—seemed a curious turn.

After all, Kaplan spearheaded the creation of the Flip, the handy device that simplified video recording by minimizing everything. In March 2009, Cisco Systems purchased Pure Digital Technologies, Flip’s parent company, for $590 million. Kaplan’s expertise resides in the tech world, where proprietary goods like the Flip excite investors, consumers, and venture capitalists; in the restaurant arena, grilled cheese can’t be trademarked.

Kaplan, however, is convinced The Melt will not only survive but thrive when he opens the first five units this fall.

“I’m an entrepreneur at heart, whether in the technology industry, the restaurant industry, or any other industry in which I see an opportunity,” Kaplan says.

At the D9 conference, held at the Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, Kaplan called The Melt a “next-generation fast-casual restaurant.” And predictably the restaurant boasts a hearty infusion of technology.

“We’re using innovative technology to reinvent the fast-casual restaurant experience for the better,” Kaplan says.

The Melt will leverage technology in all areas of the business, including the ordering process, and will lean on location-based mobile technology. Guests will be able to remotely order from their computers and mobile phones and pick orders up at any Melt location. When a customer places an order, they will receive a QR code that can be scanned at any restaurant location, which enables customers to pay through their phone, skip the line, and enjoy their hot sandwich within minutes.

“[We] will continue to deliver consistently delicious and affordable food using technology to save guests time and aggravation,” Kaplan says.

When a customer places an order, they will receive a QR code that can be scanned at any restaurant location, which enables customers to enjoy their hot sandwich within minutes.

Kaplan says launching a concept that centers on a dish often reserved for children’s menus represents the ideal pairing for the restaurant’s high-tech ordering. Much like the Flip made high-quality video accessible to everyone, The Melt will make grilled cheese, available to anyone, anytime.

“Grilled cheese makes people happy,” Kaplan says. “What better way to create unique and memorable dining experiences than offering the ultimate comfort food with a modern sensibility?”

The team behind The Melt developed specialized cooking equipment using a combination of heat and microwaves to grill a sandwich with speed and precision. Such proprietary equipment, Kaplan says, will allow the quick-service restaurant to inject gourmet taste into the everyday classic with unique pairings and high-quality ingredients.

“Grilled cheeses can be created in just over one minute, and soups are aerated prior to service for combinations of flavors and textures that until now have been reserved for fine-dining experiences,” he says.

Given Kaplan’s track record with innovation, he has attracted investors big and small, including California-based funding giant Sequoia Capital, which is reported to have committed up to $10 million to the venture. (Sequoia would not disclose specific funding figures.)

Kaplan has also secured the help of award-winning celebrity chef Michael Mina, a longtime friend. Kaplan approached Mina with the fast-casual restaurant concept and recruited the acclaimed chef to join The Melt’s board of directors. Mina has assisted with the selection of The Melt’s company chef and has personally invested in the concept.  

“Jonathan is the right person to invest in,” Mina says.

The capital and Kaplan’s drive translates into aggressive plans for The Melt. He plans to open five Melt restaurants in San Francisco this fall and 500 locations over the next five years. Few have dared to match that projected rate of growth, particularly start-up concepts yet to open their first shop.

And for all the questions, snickers, and peculiarities of a fast-casual grilled cheese concept built by a techie, Kaplan remains steadfast in his aim.

“The Melt will create memories by serving irresistible grilled cheese soup combos and make ordering seamless and fast,” Kaplan says.