Ever make a grilled cheese at home, put too much cheese in it, and then watch it ooze out onto hot the skillet and start smoking? It’s a mess, right?
That’s a little like what’s happening to the Tom + Chee chain, which just closed its second of two units in Louisville yesterday. Frozen pipes burst several days ago and flooded the Highlands store, and two restaurants beside it, and initially, the operators planned to reopen it. But it appears the business interruption created a good excuse to walk away from the site, and its closure was announced yesterday.
The Cincinnati-based company’s closures aren’t just happening here, they’re happening in multiple markets. The meltdown is likely tied to aggressive and rapid growth, and not short term calamities like this one.
Tom + Chee began under a tent on Cincy’s Fountain Square in 2009. Its clever grilled cheese sandwiches were great, lines formed and the “expert advice” to turn it into an actual restaurant concept poured in. After the brick and mortar stores started opening in 2010, founders Trew and Jennifer Quackenbush appeared on “Shark Tank” in 2013, and interest soared. A bit later, the company’s president, David Krikorian, told Cincinnati Magazine that, “We see this opportunity in the next two, three, four, five years to have literally hundreds and hundreds of Tom + Chees all across the country.”
Restaurant industry history shows that predictions of “hundreds and hundreds” of restaurants rarely pan out. At best, they become tens of tens before a concept hits growing pains and expansion slows. Sometimes they contract or collapse altogether, but a rare few continue growing and growing to hundreds and hundreds.
In the same article, which you can read here, it’s reported that the “Shark Tank” appearance resulted in two “sharks,” real estate investor, Barbara Corcoran, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, agreeing to buy a 30 percent stake in Tom + Chee for $600,000.
But, and it’s a big but, Cuban later backed out of the deal over a disagreement about franchising, and Corcoran eventually reduced her equity in the upstart chain to 1 percent. That’s a huge take-back, so something significant happened to ruin that deal. Cuban and Corcoran spotted some flaws with the brand and skedaddled.
And that brings us to today: Tom + Chee’s contraction. Tom + Chee claims on its website to have stores in 15 states, but it doesn’t. Using its website, I checked each state, and it was tedious. A couple of years ago, when I was doing some research on the chain, its website had a locations page that included a long, easy-to-read list. And if I recall correctly, there were around 35 stores in operation. Now, according to its website, if you look up each state, one-at-a-freakin’-time, like I did, there are 16 stores in nine states: half its last peak.
I expect that shrinking will continue partly because the pattern is familiar: Franchising happens too fast, expensive high-visibility locations are rented, and after the initial excitement wears off, customer traffic slides, revenue plummets and now-underperforming stores can’t pay their bills.
With Tom + Chee, that’s partly due to the fact that grilled cheese really isn’t a whole concept, it’s a menu category. And despite all the gauzy nostalgia surrounding this American comfort staple of soup and grilled cheese, it hasn’t proven something Americans crave enough consume frequently at a restaurant. Let’s face it, a grilled cheese made from slices of American and buttered white bread is not only delicious, it’s easy to make. Even easier is opening a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup to complete the meal.
Sure, a jazzed-up gourmet grilled cheese is different and darn tasty, but it appears not many people are willing to part with $7-$9 for that kind of combo—especially without a drive-thru.
All the appropriate social media sadness is piling up on Tom + Chee’s Louisville Facebook page today. I’m sure people liked it and are bummed that it’s gone. But I’m also sure part of why Tom + Chee is gone is because such saddened devotées weren’t all that devoted to the brand. I’ll bet most of them didn’t come more than once a month, and more likely once every two months.
Why not? Because there are so many choices in this market.
Not the least of which is to make grilled cheese and soup at home.