I Love Grilled Cheese: Meltworks: A Grilled Cheese Company
A couple weeks ago I requested that people email and let me know which restaurants serve the best grilled cheese sandwiches. What local eatery serves a grilled cheese that they could eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What I was expecting was fans of restaurants to write me singing the praises of a local restaurant. Instead, I received an email from someone who is in the process of opening a brand new grilled cheese restaurant in Columbus, Ohio.
Mr. Eric Powell, owner of Meltworks, wrote notifying me of his soon to be opened restaurant. As you will read below, in Mr. Powell’s own words, Meltworks will feature a menu that will promote creativity and individuality. Based on Mr. Powell’s responses alone, I believe that he is on the right path to creating an awesome restaurant that I plan on visiting once it opens, in the near future. Mr. Powell took the time to fully and completely reply to my questions, so hopefully you take the time to thoroughly read his responses.
In your original email, you mentioned that you have been following this blog since it began. I greatly appreciate that but am very curious as to how you heard about imagine a different world of grilled cheese?
I have Google Alerts configured on a number of keywords related to grilled cheese. With these, I receive daily emails that show any new activity on the keyword and your blog showed up in one of them. They’re quite useful and I would recommend using them.
How long have you been in the restaurant business?
I’m actually brand new to the restaurant business, but my business partner and co-founder Trevor Snowden has worked in the business for over a decade.
Please expand on your love for grilled cheese.
I’m attracted to things that are simple. I love the simple construction of the grilled cheese sandwich, the combination of textures, and the nostalgic feeling of eating and preparing them. I love that the grilled cheese sandwich can be a platform for self-expression, which is why we really focus on customer-created sandwiches. There are really endless combinations and flavors that can be explored through the simple elements of grilled cheese. We call this the “niche/variety dichotomy,” which is something that works in a variety of contexts (Chipotle and Pinkberry, for example).
How long have you been working on bringing Meltworks to reality?
A long time – too long in fact (I’m sooo ready to be open for business). I had a seed of the idea as far back as 2004, but didn’t really consider it as a project until 2005. I started working on it myself in early 2005 and wrote a draft of a business plan. This process caused me to realize that I knew virtually nothing about the restaurant business and that I had to educate myself on the business and find some experienced help.
Around that time, I started talking to a friend of mine about the business and we decided that the more “prudent” path would be to try to buy an existing business and shelve the grilled cheese business until we had some solid operating history behind us. We looked at a number of businesses and anything that we could potentially afford failed to excite us, to say the least. We made a decision around that point (late 2005ish) to start working on the grilled cheese business. As we both work full-time regular corporate jobs (still do, until we’re open), a lot of our initial work was on nights and weekends and we spent a lot of time tinkering with sandwiches and ideas.
Also, as we began planning, I started diving in into the costs of bringing this idea to reality. Needless to say, it’s a lot. We made a decision early on to fund the business entirely with equity, which meant outside investors. A good amount of time over the last year has been focused purely on raising the money necessary to fund the business. We’re almost there.
Do you believe that most people stereotype the grilled cheese in that they think it is boring and for children?
To some extent, yes. Generally, the people that are most excited about the idea are twenty-somethings. I find that they’re adventurous and “get it”, while still appreciating the nostalgia factor. This is a bit stereotypical of me, but I’ve found that older men typically don’t understand the appeal of the concept as well as others.
What will set Meltworks away from all of the other restaurants out there, including ones that do or do not serve grilled cheese sandwiches?
Great food is the price of admission to having a successful restaurant, so I won’t belabor the obvious of having quality ingredients and a strong menu. I think we have those at Meltworks and our extensive time in the kitchen with ourselves, friends, and strangers was built around that obvious key requirement.
After that, I see a few key differentiators for us:
- Customer involvement in the creation of our menu – we’re very serious when we say that we want our customers to help us innovate. We put every ingredient front-and-center on the line (right next to the grill), and interact with customers as the create their sandwich. As I mentioned in my previous email, customers are encouraged to submit sandwich ideas which we will use in our “grilled cheese of the month” feature. As I said, no ingredient is off-limits, so people can get really creative.
- Flexibility – this builds on the previous, but Meltworks customers can be both indulgent and healthy at Meltworks. We use olive oil on the sandwiches and have only fresh ingredients on-hand. We don’t deep fry anything and we offer lower calorie and lower fat options. I love what Melt does in Cleveland, because they really embrace the indulgent side of it, but I think it’s something that makes us a little different.
- Our stores – I’m a bit of a design nut, and I wanted the stores to be a natural extension of the concept. We focused on the idea of Meltworks selling a modern interpretation of comfort food. Because grilled cheese is typically eaten at home, we decided to style our stores like urban loft apartments, giving them a residential feel with a modern, urban interpretation. We really want our places to be a place for customers to hang out and meet friends in a place that’s less sterilized than a Starbucks or Panera Bread. We’re big music nuts, so we place a big emphasis on playing great independent music in the store.
- Company Culture – We don’t like the way most restaurants treat their employees and we are a big believer in the power of the individual. Our stores will operate like mini-democracies where every employee has a say in how their store is operated. We recognize that people’s employment at Meltworks may only be a stepping stone to achieve some greater ambition, so we will actively encourage employees to pursue their passions and look for ways to help them accomplish that.
Where does your sandwich inspiration come from?
Our own tastebuds. Trevor and I spent many hours and late nights in the kitchen trying different combinations. We looked at flavor combinations that you’d see in totally different places and tried to apply the “grilled cheese” model to them. For example, our barbeque chicken grilled cheese is inspired by a barbeque chicken pizza at one of our favorite pizza places. That said, we see the menu being more about what customers create. Our “signature” sandwiches are meant to be a starting point for customers before “graduating” to the create your own method. We hope that people will continually surprise us with great ideas and unique combinations.
Has the poor economy deterred you at all from starting your restaurant?
No, but it certainly makes it difficult attracting investors. We’re fortunate to be in an area of the restaurant industry that has weathered the storm quite well (fast casual), and I actually think it’s a perfect time to launch Meltworks. We have seen opportunities in real estate and better leverage with suppliers and contractors. Most importantly though, comfort food thrives in times of economic trouble, so I think it’s a no-brainer.
When and where do you expect to open Meltworks?
We have a location lined up in Grandview, OH (a Columbus neighborhood) and we expect to open in the Fall of this year.
Meltworks • Coming Soon to Columbus, Ohio