Though Wisconsin and cheese travel hand in hand, Troy Davis, a former marketing manager at Sargento Foods, discovered a surprising lack of grilled cheese concepts in America’s Dairyland.

Davis launched Melthouse Bistro in November 2011 in Milwaukee. The fast-casual eatery features an inventive menu modeled after the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board’s Grilled Cheese Academy. Pairing Wisconsin-crafted cheeses with artisan breads and adventurous toppings—from applewood-smoked bacon to grilled eggplant—Melthouse Bistro’s barn-to-bistro offerings have spawned a legion of fans.

Davis, who operates the restaurant with his wife, Susan, discusses the shop’s founding and its efforts to invigorate Wisconsin’s signature homegrown product.

What sparked the establishment of Melthouse Bistro?

When I was with Sargento, we did extensive consumer research on how people used cheese. In one particular focus group, a number of women talked about doing grilled cheese in a more gourmet way with different breads, cheeses, and fresh additions. That got our imaginations going. We began researching grilled cheese concepts and general restaurant trends, and saw an opportunity here in Milwaukee to create something really exciting.

What gave you the confidence that a gourmet grilled cheese concept would work?

Even though people can make grilled cheese cheap and easy at home, we focused on creating something unique with a special value proposition. People want local, high-quality products and new flavor profiles, all of which makes them more open to trying different cheeses. These macro trends came together and convinced us that there was a market for gourmet grilled cheeses if we could distinguish the concept as something novel and promote those local ties.

How do you leverage adult beverages at Melthouse Bistro?

Wisconsin’s a great cheese state, but it also has a rich beer history we wanted to capitalize on. We have an extensive selection of local beers and wines. For every sandwich on our menu, we list a suggested beer and wine pairing, and about 50 percent of guests go with our recommendation. Having adult beverages helps elevate our concept and further differentiates us in the marketplace.

A year into business, what has the customer response been?

We’re driven a lot by repeat business, and that’s a testament to the uniqueness and quality of the concept. People are often surprised that there aren’t more places like this in Wisconsin, which is a good thing for us. We designed Melthouse Bistro for the long term and will soon look at a second location—perhaps in Milwaukee or maybe Madison. We believe we can grow the concept into a multiunit brand.

Emerging Concepts, Menu Innovations, Sandwiches, Story, Melthouse Bistro