A handful of years ago, Steve Giordanella was looking for his next investment.

He previously owned bullet-proof vest manufacturer Protective Products International, which he sold in 2006. His next major venture took him in a slightly different direction.

Giordanella recalls meeting a chef in Fort Lauderdale through a mutual friend. The chef tossed the idea of four or five gourmet mac & cheese stores in Florida, but Giordanella wasn’t initially interested.

“Then after talking with the gentleman for a while, we decided, look, if we could duplicate this relatively easily, where we don’t have to sell franchises to just chefs and he could come up with a good plan, I’d be willing to listen,” Giordanella recalls. “But I’m not interested in just opening four mac and cheese stores in the Florida area.”

The chef spent the next several months investigating and devising a plan of action to present to Giordanella. After tasting the food and hearing the plan, Giordanella was sold. In 2016, I Heart Mac & Cheese was born.

They proceeded to build corporate stores in South Florida to ensure the concept had legs, and the units performed well. The next step was franchising, and as it turns out, Giordanella wasn’t the only one who loves mac & cheese.

“We started selling franchises, thinking that that would be a pretty tough thing to do, considering I was never in the franchise business and know much about it,” Giordanella says. “But we were blessed and we realized very quickly that this was a pretty good concept and we were off and running. We’re selling them rather quickly. I’m told by the experts in the franchise industry that we’re doing very well compared to other startup franchises.”

I Heart Mac & Cheese is a build-your-own macaroni or grilled cheese concept where customers can select a base, sauce, vegetables, cheese, and protein. There’s also chef specials that come either as a grilled cheese or bowl like Baked Buffalo Chicken, Philly Cheese Steak, and Lobster & White Truffle Mac. For the healthier-minded customers, there are vegan bowls and grilled cheese options.

Giordanella says the brand’s name always brings customers in at least once—and that’s all the restaurant really needs.

“Well, truth be told, the name I Heart Mac and Cheese always attracts people, because who doesn’t like mac and cheese?” he says. “And we also obviously have grilled cheese sandwiches. But we also have healthy bowls. We have quinoa, cauliflower, broccoli bowls with grilled chicken on it, an array of different types of dressings. So you don’t have to have the mac and cheese all the time, which is loaded with carbs. … What prompted us to really move toward the healthier options, as well, is kids would want to come in there every day after football and soccer practice, and the moms and dads are like, ‘You guys have to have something for us to eat. We can’t eat this stuff every day.’ And that’s what prompted us to expand the line. And I gotta’ tell you, the vegan line has really taken off.”

In terms of how the brand has navigated the pandemic, Giordanella says it depends on the territory. In New York, which has had tight restrictions on restaurants throughout the pandemic, it’s been a struggle. But he notes that units in Indiana, Texas, and Florida—where states have less restrictive mandates—stores have done well.

The restaurant has spent the better part of the pandemic signing numerous franchise agreements. On September 14, I Heart Mac & Cheese announced that it inked 20 agreements across nine states—from California to the East Coast—in 30 days. The brand has 12 operational restaurants, with another 115 sold and in various stages of development. The majority of those are targeted to open within the next six to nine months.

Giordanella says there really isn’t a specific growth strategy behind the business. I Heart Mac & Cheese has not been shy about hitting any and every market, with recent deals in Texas, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, Indiana, California, New York, New Jersey, and more.

“What we have found is when we signed an agreement for a particular area—let’s say Texas— OK, we signed a deal in Texas. Once one of the stores opens up, then it opens up the whole market,” Giordanella explains. “People come, they taste the food, they see the concept. And then before you know it, the market opens up. So it’s basically when you open one, and people start going and tasting the food, enjoying the concept, that’s virtually growth in that particular area. But there is no specific strategy of saying we’re gonna focus on the Northeast or the Midwest or the West Coast.”

Giordanella says that when it comes to selling new franchises, the pandemic hasn’t hurt the brand. He believes the closure of larger restaurants and other businesses caused people to realize they want an operation that’s relatively inexpensive, an aspect that I Heart Mac & Cheese prides itself on. The initial investment ranges from $216,000 to $355,000.

“Sales of the franchises have been going very good, and the food travels well,” Giordanella says. “So whether you’re using Uber Eats, DoorDash, or any of the platforms, because this food travels well and it could be heated in the oven or heated in the microwave, it was really a very good fit during this trying time with the pandemic. Where we got hurt is, the franchises that we sold prior to the pandemic, the real estate market closed down for a while because you couldn’t meet people face to face. So we’re in a four to five month delay in opening new stores. So that’s where it actually hurt us. But now that the country’s coming back online, that seems to be moving along very nicely.”

In addition to the affordable price, Giordanella says restaurateurs are gravitating toward the brand because of its simplicity. For example, hood systems and grease traps aren’t required in most municipalities, and the units don’t require gas lines since the equipment is electric.

Based on the success I Heart Mac & Cheese has experienced thus far, Giordanella expects that interest to continue.

“We’re not another pizza place, we’re not another burger place, we’re not another Mexican place,” Giordanella says. “It’s a concept that nobody has had. And obviously through our growth, people believe that it’s a good concept.”

Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Franchising, Web Exclusives, I Heart Mac & Cheese