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Grilled cheese sandwiches have traditionally been made at home or at full-service diners. A few higher-end places have experimented with gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches made with ingredients like watercress and Brie, and some sub shops offer toasting to melt their cheese. But generally, a simple, affordable grilled cheese in a fast-casual setting was rare—until Michael Inwald went to the fair.
In the summer of 2009, Inwald began testing his idea of fast-casual grilled cheese at county fairs in Connecticut. After garnering positive feedback from fair-goers, he took the experiment a step further and opened a location at Westfield’s Connecticut Post Mall in Milford. Cheeseboy opened its second location a year later at Boston’s South Station Train Terminal in October 2010. In the past two years, another six locations, mostly in food courts, were added in the Northeast. Now the company is getting all of its ducks in a row to begin franchising and, Inwald says, become a national brand.
Inwald says over the next 12 months, there are plans to open between three and five more company-owned Cheeseboy stores, and between five and 15 franchise stores. After 2013, he expects growth to accelerate.
“We are planning to be a national brand in a few years,” Inwald says. “We don’t want to grow too fast. One of the most frequent lessons I am taught is to avoid unnecessary rapid expansion in geographic areas you cannot support.”
Cheeseboy is now located in five states. “Our plan right now is to continue to open company-owned stores in various nontraditional locations like airports, college campuses, and highway rest areas to see what works,” Inwald says.
Founder & President: Michael Inwald
Year Started: 2009
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Franchise units: 0
In addition to “seeing what works” as far as locations go, Cheeseboy executives have been taking their time getting into franchising because they want to do it right, Inwald says.
“We spent six to eight months finalizing our training and operations manuals, our Internet system … everything,” he says. “We’re looking to come out of the gate being a sophisticated quick-service concept. Whether we bring on a franchisee today or in 10 years, they deserve the full program.”
Inwald says having company stores separated by a few hundred miles has allowed Cheeseboy management to experience and solve technology, food distribution, and human resources problems firsthand before taking on franchisees.
The menu at Cheeseboy is uncomplicated. Customers can order a grilled cheese sandwich with their choice of four breads, five cheeses, and 11 toppings. Toppings include four meats and seven veggie options. Any cheese and bread combination is $3.49. Each veggie topping adds 50 cents; meats add $1. Tomato soup, a soup of the day, chips, fruit, and fresh-baked desserts round out the menu. An average ticket at Cheeseboy is around $6.
Cheeseboy also offers “Signature Sandwiches,” which include the Cheeseboy Classic, made with Italian bread and creamy white American cheese, and the Tomato Basil Classic on Italian bread with creamy white American, sliced tomato, and fresh basil. The Cheddar Delight features rye bread, sharp Cheddar, smoked ham, and dill pickles.
Cheeseboy even has a dessert sandwich called the Cheeseboy Choco-Melt, made with Nutella hazelnut spread and American cheese on cinnamon swirl bread.
“This is a very new concept,” Inwald says. “We did some sampling of it at our stores and people liked it. It’s a really a nice product for us and we’re seeing really great performance of it. It allows us to operate in the afternoon snack category.”
Two Cheeseboy stores are also trying to operate in the breakfast category with egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches.
Inwald says the Cheeseboy operating model consists of sandwiches made fresh to order with all-natural, preservative-free breads and high-quality cheeses sliced in store.
“Most of the cheese we used is sliced in store because the quality of cheese can be inconsistent when you get it pre-sliced,” he says.
The Cheeseboy concept works in a variety of locations, including train stations, airports, and malls, because it can be done in as little as 250 square feet of space. There’s no cooking that requires a ventilation system being done at Cheeseboy. Sandwiches are made on a double panini press, and nothing on the menu requires deep-frying.
The core menu has been consistent since the first Cheeseboy opened, but limited-time offers like the Italian—with Italian bread, Provolone, basil, and pepperoni—add variety for frequent customers.
For the health-conscious crowd, the Healthy Melt, which is always on the menu and made with multigrain bread, Swiss cheese, and roasted red peppers, is sometimes joined by a limited-time offer called the Skinny BLT, made with applewood-smoked bacon, tomato, baby spinach, and light Swiss cheese.
“We want to make sure customers have options,” Inwald says. “We don’t want to be an indulgence. We’re trying to build a brand customers look to seven days a week.”