When it comes to origin stories, I ♥ Mac & Cheese may have the most unconventional of all. For one, its cofounder Stephen Giordanella had a private business supplying body armor to the likes of the U.S. Marine Corps before going into foodservice. Add to that Giordanella isn’t particularly fond of mac ‘n’ cheese. But despite it all, the Florida-based concept is currying favor with customers and potential franchisees alike.
After selling his body armor business in 2006, Giordanella began dabbling in the restaurant business, acquiring a catering hall in Long Island, New York, and building a few Mexican restaurants in Florida. When a friend introduced him to chef Michael Blum, he knew he had struck cheesy gold.
Blum was working on a gourmet mac ‘n’ cheese business, and even though Giordanella doesn’t eat mac ‘n’ cheese himself, he saw its potential. The only possible hurdle was scalability. “[Blum] was going to cook the brisket for six hours, doing everything by hand like a chef would,” Giordanella says.
After months of negotiating, the two turned to purveyor Sysco to see if Blum’s recipes could be premade at one of its facilities. They could, thankfully, to both Blum and Giordanella’s liking.
By choosing to make most products ahead of time through a purveyor, Giordanella and Blum were able to completely change the footprint of the concept. Instead of requiring a 3,000-square-foot space to accommodate a full kitchen, a location only needs between 1,600 and 1,800 square feet.
“All the food, including our proprietary cheese sauce, comes in from Sysco already cooked,” Giordanella says. “Basically, all you have to do is defrost; put it in your steamwells; drop a little lettuce, onions, and scallions; and put it on your line. Mix it all up, stick it in a bowl, put it through the oven—which is almost like a pizza conveyor-belt oven that goes up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit—and it comes out hot, gooey, and tasty in two and a half minutes.”
I ♥ Mac & Cheese
FOUNDERS: Michael Blum and Stephen Giordanella
HEADQUARTERS: Boca Raton, Florida
YEAR STARTED: 2015
CORPORATE ANNUAL SALES: $5 million
TOTAL UNITS: 8
FRANCHISED UNITS: 2
The idea was to create a very simple concept to scale. Because I ♥ Mac & Cheese has no need for expensive back-of-house equipment, buildouts range from $190,000 to $250,000. That’s well below other concepts, which can hover close to $1 million, Giordanella says. “It’s very attractive for entrepreneurs who want to get into their own business,” he says.
As far as target customer, Giordanella says the brand is going after just about everyone, from those with high-end tastes to families with kids who can get a selection of comforting pastas and salads to feed the whole crew. But, in terms of location, the company is targeting college campuses. I ♥ Mac & Cheese has corporate stores planned for Florida State University, University of Florida, University of Georgia, and Auburn University. The team is also targeting stores where there is a lot of road traffic, like its Jupiter, Florida, location situated by a Home Depot.
“We’ve taken the concept from a side dish—mac ‘n’ cheese has always been known as a side dish—and we made it a full meal,” Giordanella says. Popular items include The Cuban bowl, which has mojo-marinated pulled pork, ham, Swiss cheese, and dill pickles; the Grilled Cheese, to which ingredients like mac ‘n’ cheese and short rib can be added; and the Lobster & White Truffle Mac with Maine lobster, muenster cheese, scallions, lobster cream, and white truffle oil.
Giordanella’s favorite dish, however, is on the healthier side: the Angry Lobster salad with blue cheese, carrots, jalapeños, scallions, lobster, and buffalo sauce.
“Nobody’s ever done anything like this,” Giordanella says. “It’s inexpensive, excellent food that is very tasty and fast.”
Giordanella describes the decor for I ♥ Mac & Cheese locations as farm chic; custom wallpaper adorns the walls with chicken, eggs, and hearts.
The motivation behind many of these design choices, Giordanella says, was to remind customers of the dairy-based deliciousness and to create an inexpensive, easily replicable design for franchisees to put together.
The company only aims to open about 25 corporate stores total, meaning the lion’s share will come through franchising with plans for locations across the U.S. and beyond. At present, I ♥ Mac & Cheese owns six restaurants, has franchised two stores, and has sold 14 franchises.
“It’s a very inexpensive franchise to get into,” Giordanella says. “It’s created for the family that may have a little equity in their home, where they could take out a second mortgage and get into their own business and control their own destiny as a family.”
Giordanella’s favorite aspect of his job right now is witnessing this growth. “I like just watching how excited people are about this particular concept,” he says. “It’s not a pizza concept or another burger concept; it’s something that’s really never been done before. It’s groundbreaking.”
Still, it’s a space that has recently attracted attention from big industry players. In September, Panera Bread started offering a build-your-own mac ‘n’ cheese option featuring toppings like avocado, pico de gallo, bacon, and smoked pulled chicken. But Giordanella isn’t fazed. “Panera’s build-your-own is very limited in proteins, as well as other toppings,” he says. “We will continue to broaden our offering, therefore setting ourselves further apart.”