The humble grilled cheese sandwich takes center stage at a California-based fast-casual restaurant known as The Melt. And the gooey sandwiches go on tour, too, in four converted school buses that grilled-cheese aficionados can book for weddings, parties, and concerts, or follow to festivals and other public events.

Why all this fuss about bread and cheese? Because grilled cheese equals happiness, says Kerri Martin, vice president of marketing for The Melt.

Martin says The Melt’s founder and CEO Jon Kaplan—also the founder of Flip Video cameras—started researching grilled cheese 13 years ago.

“He went into the marketplace and did research at Mall of America,” she says. “He was blown away by the excitement over grilled cheese. It’s the ultimate American comfort food. It emotes childhood memories. People have extremely vivid nostalgic memories of grilled cheese—often those memories include mom.”

Martin says what makes The Melt’s fare different from the grilled cheese sandwiches mom may have made with American cheese singles and soft white bread is that the ingredients are all natural, with no high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, or flavors. Meanwhile, an artisan bakery in San Francisco provides bread for The Melt. “We offer a more grown-up version,” she says.

The Melt uses a special press that eliminates the squishing of the sandwich to create those grown-up sandwiches, and cook time averages between two and three minutes.

The Melt

Founder/CEO: Jon Kaplan

HQ: San Francisco

Year Started: 2011

Annual Sales: Undisclosed

Total Units:16

Franchise Units: 0

The menu at The Melt is divided into categories. The Originals include The Classic, which is aged Cheddar on artisan white bread; The Italian Job, made with Fontina and Provolone on spicy garlic bread; and the Egg-In-A-Hole with white Cheddar and an egg on sourdough.

The Specials category includes The Mac Daddy, which is The Classic with bacon and macaroni added. In addition, there is a weekly special, which Martin says sells very well.

Four soups are available each day at The Melt: Two Tomato Basil, Sweet Corn Tortilla, Spicy Black Bean, and a seasonal soup. The tomato soup is the best seller.

“All soups are blended so diners can dip their sandwiches,” Martin says. “Dipping is a big part of people’s grilled cheese memories.”

Two salads, The Caesar and The Field Greens, round out the menu, but at The Melt, even salads get a comfort-food addition. Classic melt sandwiches are cut up in pieces, baked, and used as croutons.

The Classic melt is $4.95, and special melts are priced higher. A Mac Daddy, for example, is $6.95. Customers can add soup or a salad for $2 more. Gluten-free bread can be requested for any sandwich.

“We get a lot of appreciation from customers because we don’t charge extra for gluten-free bread,” Martin says.

Desserts at The Melt include soft-serve ice cream—which is also used in milkshakes—fresh fruit, cookies, and the Chocolate Marshmallow S’more Melt, which is a grilled sandwich with marshmallows and chocolate.

True to the brand’s mission of serving natural products, there are no big-name soft drinks served at The Melt. Choices include iced tea, lemonade, all-natural sodas, water, sparkling flavored water, and milk. All locations also sell beer and sparkling wine in cans.

All stores are company owned, and Martin says there are no plans for franchising, but the brand is focused on launching several more locations in California and will expand into new markets outside of the state by year’s end. Fans and followers of The Melt on social media will be among the first to know about new locations and new markets, since the concept has a big following.

Guests can also go to The Melt’s website to get engaged, create an account, and submit orders online. After submitting an order, a customer receives an email confirming it. That email includes a QR code unique to the order, and the customer can go to the restaurant, skip the line, and scan the QR code next to the pick-up area. When the QR code is scanned, staff begins making the order. “When you set up a profile, we ask who your favorite band is, and we’ll start playing your favorite music after you scan your QR code and you are waiting for your order,” Martin says. “It’s a personalized customer experience.” She says 5–10 percent of orders at The Melt are placed online, depending on the market; online ordering is more prevalent in urban markets.

But it doesn’t matter whether The Melt is in an urban or suburban setting or serving its full menu from one of The Melt buses—guests have a lot in common, Martin says.

“Grilled cheese appeals to an extremely broad demographic, but comfort food and a love of cheese ties them together,” she says. “Our guests are all happy, confident, witty, and fun people.”

Consumer Trends, Denise Lee Yohn: QSR's Marketing Guru, Emerging Concepts, Fast Casual, Growth, Sandwiches, Story, The Melt