I Love Grilled Cheese: The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen

I have been following the creation and opening of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen for as long as I can remember. I even saw their booth at the 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, but was unable to get a sample. I have been impressed ever since. Thankfully, I was able to reach Nate Pollak at The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, who answered all of my questions regarding his new restaurant and included his thoughts on the grilled cheese sandwich. The next time I am in San Francisco, I will make a point to stop by The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen for an awesome grilled cheese sandwich. Below are Mr. Pollak’s answers in his own words.

How long have you personally been in the restaurant business?
Cumulatively, about 3 years

Please expand on your love for grilled cheese and how it evolved into a restaurant, including your participation in the Grilled Cheese Invitational.
My partner, 7-time grilled cheese invitational champion Heidi Gibson, has a knack for creating incredibly creative comfort food dishes using only the highest quality artisanal ingredients. The GCI was actually founded by some of Heidi’s mutual friends 8 years ago in Los Angeles. Heidi decided to travel down from SF to compete in the first ever GCI. It was a small event, with 40 competitors, held in a warehouse in downtown LA. She won first place. 8 years later, the event boasts over 500 competitors, three competition categories, corporate sponsorship (Kraft, Tillamook), regional competitions (Austin, TX; San Francisco, CA), and this year the event was held on the studio lot at LA Center Studios in downtown Los Angeles and had 8000 attendees. I started cooking with Heidi as her assistant when she won her 5th trophy at the regional SF competition. We had both been recently laid off from our corporate management jobs during the economic crash of 2008, and inspired by her 5th victory, we joined forces to write a business plan for San Francisco’s first ever gourmet grilled cheese restaurant. As there were no small business loans available, we self-funded the entire project out of our own savings. We did tons of research, over a year of menu testing, and sampled hundreds of products from hundreds of vendors to come up with the perfect gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches, at an affordable price point, to create our menu.

At the 2010 GCI, THE AMERICAN Grilled Cheese Kitchen were also official food vendors. We offered our Piglet sandwich to event attendees: Tillamook sharp cheddar, artisan cured ham, apple mustard, rosemary butter

How long, from conception to implementation, did it take to open The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen?
15 months.

Does social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc) play a role in promoting your restaurant (pre/post-opening)?
Huge role. Our restaurant is in South Park, one of the oldest, most historic neighborhoods in San Francisco, in the South Beach area. It’s also home to San Francisco’s .com tech startup community; including companies like Twitter, Ubisoft, LookSmart, ServiceSource, EventBrite, Travelocity, Vertical Response, and many others. We exclusively use facebook and twitter for announcements (daily specials, menu updates, and other information), and our website is built entirely in WordPress.

Do you believe that most people stereotype the grilled cheese in that they think it is boring and only for children?
Some do. I think most people are very excited to have a grown-up, sophisticated grilled cheese sandwich. That is why we’ve been successful to date. We feature local vendors, and artisanal products. For example our breads are a custom baked country-wheat levain boutarde load from Pinkie’s Bakery. Our sourdough is a spectacular, fluffy, rich sourdough from Artisan bakers in Marin. Our cheeses feature local, and international cheeses. All of our sauces, mustards, relishes, pickles, etc are made in-house! And each gourmet grilled cheese sandwich is inspired by a gourmet entrée at a restaurant. For example, our mushroom gruyere sandwich is inspired by French-onion soup. Also, our tomato soup is a house made soup made from REAL tomatoes. We used Campbell’s tomato soup as our example soup – the nostalgic soup in everyone’s mind when they think of grilled cheese. And recreated something unique, that’s our own (but still resembling the sweet Campbell’s tomato), but with real vegetables, and no sugar or corn syrup.

Some people still truly believe that a grilled cheese should only be Kraft Singles and Wonder/white bread. For those people, our restaurant might not be the best place. There are plenty of diners, etc that offer this. We only serve real food products. So unfortunately, processed, chemically rich American cheese did not make the menu, nor did wonder bread. We pride ourselves in taking grilled cheese to the next level. Although, there is a secret menu item which will get a customer a very basic, grilled cheese…

Have you seen a positive response to The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen?
Very positive. Now into our fourth month, we are still selling out of food daily. The neighborhood and community has been incredible in supporting what we’re doing. They’re excited to have a new eating option in the neighborhood, and something unique and hip.

What has been the most popular sandwich and what is your personal favorite?
We’ve got a few that a very popular. Our most basic grilled cheese, The Mousetrap (cheddar, havarti and jack on buttered sourdough) outsells everything. Most often it’s ordered with a seasoned roasted tomato and apple wood smoked bacon. A lot of folks like getting some of our house made bread n’butter pickles on their Mousetrap too!

When it comes to the more complex, gourmet sandwiches, the Mushroom Gruyere (fontina, gruyère, roasted wild mushrooms + gold potatoes, melted leeks, caramelized onions, thyme butter ) and Jalapeno Popper (chèvre, monterey jack, apple wood-smoked bacon, apricot-jalapeño relish) are by far the most popular.

One of our newest sandwiches though, is creeping it’s way to the top: The Don Gondola (aged provolone, sopressatta salami, roasted tomato, lavender-basil pesto, garlic butter)

Where does your sandwich inspiration come from?
As we mentioned above, we look to gourmet dishes and other foods for inspiration. For example, we’ve done a sandwich influenced by butternut squash ravioli. This one includes: Italian Fontina, smoked Idiazabal, roasted butternut squash, sage, bacon, prosciutto, caramelized onions and pane rustica.

The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen • 1 South Park Ave. Suite 103A • San Francisco, 94107 • 415-243-0107

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