Grilled cheese is one of America’s favorite comfort foods, and now a couple of Cincinnati, Ohio, entrepreneurs is developing creative takes on the famous sandwich in a national fast-casual chain. Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush originally started Tom + Chee as a seasonal business at a skating rink, but it was such a hit they opened a brick-and-mortar location in 2009. Attention from TV shows like “Man v. Food Nation” and “Shark Tank” later accelerated the brand’s franchise growth.
Quackenbush talks about how the brand gets creative with such a simple sandwich, and how everything lives and dies by the cheese.
Why did you want to open a grilled cheese concept?
We were talking about different things to do, and we went through meatballs, pot pies, empanadas—we thought about all different types of foods. We really wanted to push a comfort food, and grilled cheese is kind of a quintessential comfort food. It was the downturn of the economy at the time we opened, so it was one of those things where the ingredients were cheap for us—bread and cheese—and everyone had an emotional story and connection to grilled cheese.
How much innovation is possible with grilled cheese?
Starting with the bread and then adding an amazing cheese is just the start. You can create all kinds of great flavors from there with different seasonings and different additions. Take our Barbecue Bacon sandwich: It’s something that’s very simple—white bread and American cheese—and then you add bacon. But how do we take it to the next level? We throw barbecue potato chips inside it, so it has a crunch, a little spice, different textures. Then you have the Crunchy Garlic Chicken, which is wheat bread and Pepper Jack cheese. You get a little nuttiness from the bread; you get a nice heat from the cheese. Then we throw things at you like garlic seasoning, sweet hot mustard, a Parmesan garlic potato chip, and fresh tomatoes.
It was all just looking at different cheeses and different combinations and saying, “What kind of flavors can we throw in there?” And then it was keeping it from something very traditional, like pesto and turkey with Mozzarella cheese.
What are the best cheeses for grilled cheese?
Personally, I’m a Gouda fan, and Gouda and Pepper Jack mixed together; I like that smokiness, and a little bit of heat.
Overall, the most ordered cheese is Cheddar, and I think that goes back to that traditional grilled cheese. But I think the best cheese for grilled cheese would be Mozzarella because of the stretch factor and the gooey factor.
With Mozzarella, the flavor isn’t always as intense, so mixing it with something like Cheddar, Swiss, or Pepper Jack accelerates the flavor.
What’s the best way to source great cheese?
The first thing we wanted to make sure was that we sourced an origin cheese, so we said we wanted to use as much Wisconsin cheese as we could. We have a purchasing arm, and I say I want this origin, this amount of fat, and this amount of moisture content.
For us, it’s looking at where it comes from, how it was handled, and what kind of pasteurization process they use. You’ve got to get your hands on it and cut it up and take bites and choose it based on all of the different characteristics—if it’s a Cheddar, how sharp is it? Do you taste the aging? Is it natural or artificial coloring? We want to make sure we’re using natural as much as possible.
Are high-quality cheeses more high maintenance?
No, but when you get into semi-softs and things like that, the issue becomes handling—so, Brie, or something like that. The most difficult cheeses to execute and train and work with have been semi-soft cheeses. They don’t take well to a knife sometimes, and every little bit of humidity affects how its reacts. When you’re sitting there with an extra sharp Cheddar cheese, it’s much more forgiving.
What does the future of menu development look like for Tom + Chee?
I think for us, this year we’re focusing on snack times and different things you can do with cheeses. But I think spicy will continue—sriracha is the next spicy sauce to go out there, and we went through our ghost pepper and habanero phase. There are a lot of other great chilies that will end up in the forefront. People love their spice.