The company is looking for other potential flavors, and improvements in processed cheese have opened the potential for additional options, Van Popering says. “The technology, the artistry has advanced pretty dramatically. That certainly helps foodservice providers access a wider variety of cheese where natural or aged had previously been the only options.”
Arby’s goes through a rigorous research and development regimen when considering new ingredients, says Neville Craw, the brand’s corporate executive chef and director of product development and innovation. That may involve multiple vendors. “Each vendor’s cheese is different in style and slicing,” he says.
No menu items rely more on cheese than grilled-cheese sandwiches, which are at the heart of several limited-service restaurants.
Diners at Boston-based Cheeseboy, an eight-unit chain in five Northeast states, can select one of 10 signature grilled-cheese sandwiches or create their own by choosing among four breads, four meats, seven vegetables, and six types of cheese, starting at $3.49.
“We look for ingredients that complement each other and mix well,” says Michael Inwald, founder and president of the four-year-old company.
Each cheese has properties that work on grilled-cheese sandwiches. American cheese is salty and stands up to strong meat flavors, while Provolone and Swiss are milder. Cheddar has plenty of flavor and melts without the stringiness others have.
One uncommon cheese used at the chain is Muenster, which “goes well with anything,” Inwald says. “It is easily paired, having a creamy, buttery flavor that is also more savory than a number of other mild ones.”
At the other end of the country, The Melt is making grilled-cheese sandwiches at more than a dozen locations in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. “The Melt is simply grilled-cheese happiness. That is our mission,” says Paul Coletta, chief marketing officer for the chain, which expects to grow in part through the addition of dozens of food trucks.
Only natural cheese from hormone-free milk earns a spot on The Melt’s menu. That includes Cheddar, Pepper Jack, Swiss, Provolone, and Fontina, which has a fairly intense flavor, “melts perfectly in terms of texture, and is very creamy,” Coletta says.
Some more exotic cheese varieties, such as goat cheese and Brie, have made it onto The Melt menu as part of limited-time offers. Melted cheese sandwiches are $4.75, and meat or vegetables—braised short ribs, for instance—adds another $2 or $3.
Cheese is also at the heart of macaroni and cheese. Most quick serves and fast casuals use a mixture of several cheese varieties, notably Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and processed American, in their mac and cheese, although a few add in other varieties.
MacDaddy’s, a mac-and-cheese eatery with two Connecticut locations, has more than two dozen offerings, featuring not only the usual suspects, but also Ricotta, smoked Gouda, Asiago, goat cheese, Gruyere, and Fontina in natural, aged, or processed form.
“We offer a lot of different cheese, a lot of blended cheese,” says Joseph Voll, chief executive at MacDaddy’s. “There’s no cheese that doesn’t work. It’s a question of using the right amount of each cheese, depending on what else is in the dish.”
Still, the most popular item is old-fashioned mac and cheese featuring Cheddar and topped with breadcrumbs.
Another American favorite is the cheeseburger, and the 37-unit The Counter features burgers topped with Tillamook-brand Cheddar, American, Brie, Danish Blue, Feta, Gruyere, Horseradish Cheddar, Jalapeño Jack, Provolone, or Swiss cheese. Most of these are also available at the Culver City, California–based company’s fast casual, Built Custom Burgers.
Cheddar is the most popular choice because it works well with beef, turkey, and veggie burgers, as well as chicken breast, says Andrew Evans, director of culinary operations.
“We use Tillamook Cheddar because of the flavor profile and creaminess on the melt,” he says. It is aged less than 60 days, so it slices better and doesn’t crumble. “And the cheese is mild enough not to offend, but has enough flavor to meet the profile we seek.”
At Built Custom Burgers, which opened its first restaurant in Los Angeles this spring, the kitchen manager chooses one special cheese monthly. A recent selection was Halloumi, a slightly salty choice from Cyprus with a high melting point. Another cheese was Manchego, made with sheep’s milk from Spain’s La Mancha region. “The buttery flavor complements beef, chicken, and turkey,” Evans says.
These and other cheese varieties are fair game for limited-service restaurants because “Americans aren’t afraid of trying them,” says Shane Schaibly, corporate chef of Front Burner Brands, parent of fast casual Burger 21 and the casual Melting Pot chain.
Nonetheless, American cheese remains very popular at Burger 21. “It’s not the most amazing cheese, but if you didn’t have it, guests would be puzzled,” Schaibly says.
The burger brand has other familiar cheese choices—Swiss, Cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Provolone—as well as Fontina, Feta and blue cheese spreads, and blue cheese crumbles.
Gouda is featured on the Tex-Mex Haystack with guacamole, bacon, onion strings, lettuce, tomato, and chipotle-jalapeño sauce. And one limited-time offer, the Alpine Spring Burger, includes Gruyere, “which has a nutty, earthy flavor,” Schaibly says.
“People are more adventurous, so they’ll try things like Gruyere or Fontina on a burger.”
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