Grilled cheese and tomato soup are an American comfort food duo that a couple of Cincinnati, Ohio, entrepreneurs has put in the national spotlight.
Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush started Tom + Chee with their wives Jenny Rachford and Jenn Quackenbush as a seasonal business in a tent at a skating rink in Cincinnati. It was such a hit that they pooled their savings and opened a brick-and-mortar location the next year. A second store opened in the Cincinnati area six months later, followed by a franchise location in Louisville, Kentucky.
Tom + Chee started getting a lot of media attention, and the concept’s first brush with fame occurred when Adam Richman sampled the concept’s Blueberry Blue Fancy Grilled Cheese Donut on an episode of Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food Nation,” which aired in 2012.
Ward and Trew Quackenbush then pitched their business on the ABC reality show “Shark Tank” in 2013 and walked away with an investment from Barbara Corcoran and Mark Cuban.
“It was pretty intense,” Ward says. “There was a lot of back and forth, but when they saw the numbers, they were impressed.”
It helped, too, that the partners fed their investors grilled cheese doughnuts.
Tom + Chee
Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush
HQ: Cincinnati, Ohio
Year Started: 2009
Annual Sales: Undisclosed
Total Units: 23
Franchise Units: 17
Ward says that in the first week after the show aired, he received more than 2,000 franchise requests. Now that the show has aired multiple times with updates, the number has topped 30,000. Interest has come from people in all 50 states, he says, as well as from international markets.
“‘Shark Tank’ has helped store sales and brand awareness,” Ward says. “Everybody wants a Tom + Chee in their town.”
Since appearing on the show, the cofounders have signed deals in 20 states with 40 franchisees. Quackenbush says the brand will open 30 new units this year, bringing the total count to 54. By the end of 2016, Tom + Chee will have more than 100 locations.
A grilled cheese from Tom + Chee is not the common incarnation of plain white bread with processed American cheese. Instead, the top sellers are the Tom + Chee, with tomatoes, garlic seasoning, Mozzarella, and Cheddar cheese on sourdough bread; and the Flying Pig, with roasted turkey, bacon, pickles, and Gouda on sourdough. Other offerings include the Pesto + Turkey and the Hippy + Chee, with hummus, cucumber, mixed greens, tomato, and Cheddar.
To appease the “kids at heart,” whom Quackenbush says the brand tries to attract, several sandwiches include potato chips—not on the side, but layered in the sandwich. For example, the Italian Fancy Grilled Cheese includes pepperoni, ham, Mozzarella, and salt-and-vinegar chips.
In addition to the fancy sandwiches, guests at Tom + Chee can build their own grilled cheese by choosing one of five breads and two of 10 cheeses, including a vegan option. There are also seven meats, eight veggies, and other add-ons like pesto.
When it comes to the “Tom” of Tom + Chee, tomato soup is available in Classic Tomato, Chunky Tomato Basil, and Creamy Tomato. Seasonal soups include Blue Cheese Chili and Tomato Gazpacho.
A selection of salads rounds out the menu and includes the Grilled Cheese Salad, which is made with grilled cheese croutons.
For dessert, Tom + Chee offers nine varieties of the grilled cheese doughnuts that Richman raved about. The sandwiches are made by placing doughnut halves with cheese and toppings on the grill until the outsides are crispy and the insides are melted. Choices include the Bananarama, with caramelized banana slices and smoked Gouda cheese, and the Barbara Blue, which is named for Corcoran and features a blueberry compote, ham, and Brie.
“We saw two TV shows in one week talking about bacon cheeseburgers made with doughnuts,” Ward says. “We decided we could do that, but lose the burger.”
While prices vary by location, the Tom + Chee sandwich sells for about $5.45, while the Flying Pig is roughly $6.95. The entire menu is a la carte, and a cup of soup adds about $3 to the bill. The build-your-own sandwiches generally start at $3.95, with extra charges for meats, add-ons, or fancy cheese.
Quackenbush says the secret to the success of Tom + Chee is using fresh ingredients. “Every store makes its own soups and sauces from scratch and roasts all the meats,” he says.
Tom + Chee is also accessible to vegetarians, vegans, and people with allergies.
“We make our pesto with sunflower seeds to accommodate people with nut allergies,” Quackenbush says. And while a large-scale bakery produces bread for Tom + Chee, sandwiches are also available on Udi’s gluten-free bread.
Each Tom + Chee location is between 2,400 and 2,600 square feet, with bright red and yellow walls, a large chalkboard menu, and an open kitchen so guests can watch their cheesy creations come together.
“Each Tom + Chee is big and cool, and the décor brings a smile to your face,”