Grilled cheese sandwiches, like so much comfort food these days, are running wild in restaurants from fast casual to fine dining.
Even still, a plain, inexpensive, fast-food version of the sandwich is hard to come by. It was that hole in the market that Michael Inwald, now the founder of Cheeseboy, said he wants to fill.
“We’re not trying to be a deli or to compete with the typical sandwich shop,” Inwald said. “We’re trying to stick to the core of grilled cheese.”
So far, so good, he says. Inwald plans to open another three to four restaurants this year and several more next year in shopping malls, transportation centers and other locations across the Northeast.
His $2.99 sandwich, on Italian white bread with white American cheese, has been a hit. And while that is the standard option, other variations to the classic are available and include multigrain, rye and whole wheat bread; Cheddar, Swiss, Munster and provolone cheese; and toppings such as turkey, pepperoni, bacon, ham, tomato, basil, spinach, pickle, jalapeno and onion.
Inwald wouldn’t provide unit economics in advance of the franchise disclosure documents, which he hopes to have in place by early next year, but he said systems are in place for rapid expansion.
Inwald came into the grilled cheese game as an aficionado who practically lived on them while at the Yale School of Management, he recalls.
He made his own sandwiches by buttering them on both sides and then covering the pan in which he cooked them to make sure that the cheese was melted by the time the bread was toasted.
At Cheeseboy he uses panini presses.
“I’m somewhat obsessed with cheese in general,” said Inwald, a native of Queens, N.Y., recalling a childhood birthday dinner he celebrated at Artisanal, a cheese palace in Manhattan. But he didn’t want to open just a single cute little sandwich shack.
“The goal was not to open a mom-and-pop grilled cheese shop, but to open a fully operational grilled cheese system.”
He started by testing the market, first asking people where they got their grilled cheese sandwiches. He tallied the results of more than 300 people and found that most people got them at diners or off of kids’ menus in restaurants.
His next step was investing $20,000 of his own money for a market test. During the summer of 2009 he opened three “Grilled Cheese to Go” booths at state fairs in Connecticut and had lines around the corner. “The sausage places and the pizza places around us were empty,” Inwald said.
He then found an investor who helped fund the opening of his first restaurant, which he opened at the Connecticut Post Mall in Westfield, Conn., about 20 minutes from Yale, in November of 2009.
In June 2010, he opened a Grilled Cheese to Go headquarters in Boston and hired industry veterans Bob Brickles, an operations, training and franchising executive with experience at McDonald’s, Boston Market and Dunkin’ Brands, as well as Fernando Anael, a former director of training for Panera Bread, to handle operations.
Inwald also hired a branding company, and then changed the restaurant’s name to Cheeseboy — a moniker that had been given to him as he started working on this project.
He opened the first Boston unit at the city’s main train depot, South Station, in October 2010. The next unit opened in South Shore Plaza in the Boston suburb of Braintree in May. The fourth Cheeseboy is slated to open in Boston’s Prudential Center this summer.
“Ideally, we’ll open 10-15 company owned stores in the next two years, and start franchising,” Inwald said, adding that he was particularly interested in finding multiunit developers in the D.C., and Philadelphia areas.