2. Find good business partners and learn from them
Another benefit of Rubin’s construction experience? He met John Rigos and Andy Stern on one of the jobs. Rigos and Stern were Five Guys franchisees, and, like Rubin, were interested in starting a concept from scratch.
The three of them started meeting weekly to discuss possible new restaurant ideas. That led to a business partnership and, eventually, to the opening of Melt Shop.
But it didn’t stop there. Rigos and Stern founded the New York–based restaurant incubator Aurify Brands to continue developing new concepts beyond Melt Shop. That led to the creation of fast casuals The Little Beet, Fields Good Chicken, and MAKE Sandwich, as well as the full-service outlet Little Beet Table.
The company is set up in such a way that each of the brands has a unique team and leadership structure, but they share resources and knowledge as a collective in order to support each brand’s expansion.
“I think the most interesting part about working for Aurify is the fact that we're working across from all of these different founders, so we're working next to people that are kind of going through similar things at the same time,” Rubin says. “So there's a lot of learning there, because they're all kind of emerging concepts. You get the benefit of not doing all the trial and error on your own dime.”
3. Recognize when you need to pivot
Before Melt Shop, the first restaurant idea Rubin, Rigos, and Stern worked on was a doughnut concept. Rubin says the team developed the idea for about six months, but eventually decided that it wasn’t something with legs.
“I just didn't feel like it had 1,000 units scale potential,” he says. “And it just didn't feel like something that drove frequency at the level that I think you need to have a really sustainable, growing concept. I'm sure there are some amazing doughnut concepts out there, don't get me wrong, but I just wasn't that jazzed about it.”
Grilled cheese stuck out to Rubin, he says, because it had the most white space nationally. He points out that burgers and pizza were both thriving in the fast-casual category at the time, and to him, grilled cheese wasn’t all that different from those two items.
“They're both cheese and bread and protein and sauces,” Rubin says. “And it's like, all right, grilled cheese really kind of has all those similar qualities. It is a completely new space, but it's something that's really approachable and familiar to a lot people out there. Why isn't there a concept that owns the space? And that's how Melt Shop was really born.”
The pivoting didn’t end with abandoning the doughnut concept. After opening Melt Shop, Rubin and his team eventually realized they would need to evolve beyond grilled-cheese sandwiches in order to appeal to a wider audience. They evolved the concept to encompass melted sandwiches in general, and now the menu features a variety of hot sandwiches (among other items) that satisfy many tastes and need states.
Rubin says his advice to foodservice entrepreneurs is to assume change will happen; no idea is fully formed out of the gates.
“What you put out to the market day one is not going to be what the end product ultimately becomes,” he says. “There's a lot of trial and error there, and you need runway to figure those things out. Build yourself runway, is my best piece of advice I could give anyone. Make sure you have enough working capital to get you through the first year of your business so you can figure things out.”
4. Get your process (and equipment) right before scaling
The first Melt Shop opened in a 300-square-foot vented kiosk in Midtown Manhattan that previously housed a deli. Rubin says it was run down but had good infrastructure and was perfect to launch the brand; Melt Shop had long lines from day one.
When the second location opened at 26th and 6th in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, he says, the team was able to learn more about systems and how a typical Melt Shop might look in other cities. The only problem was they didn’t like what they saw.
“We realized pretty quickly that in order for us to have scale potential, we really needed to work on our throughput times, because we didn't think that a 10–12-minute check was going to set us up for success for national growth,” Rubin says.
That set Rubin on a quest to find the best cooking technology that could scale along with Melt Shop. At first the answer was a high-tech panini press, but Rubin says the equipment ended up being a “train wreck,” so Melt Shop switched back to griddles and “went back to the drawing board to try to figure out how to get our processing time down.”
“Getting the mechanics of the kitchen right and tight was my No. 1 priority,” Rubin says. “So I literally spoke to every major manufacturer in the country. I went to the Middleby headquarters and tested all their ovens and went to a bunch of other companies, just really trying to figure out, what does our prototype need to look like to ensure we're delivering the highest-quality, most consistent product possible?”
Eventually, Rubin opted to swap out the griddles in favor of conveyor technology that successfully brought Melt Shop’s ticket times down to 4–5 minutes.
“I think people really underestimate how hard it is to make a grilled cheese at scale,” he says. “I think it is harder than a pizza. It's harder than a burger. And that was my problem to solve.”