Post mortem: Tom + Chee’s meltdown here is happening elsewhere

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.

by steve coomes

Steve Coomes is a restaurant veteran turned award-winning food, spirits and travel writer. In his 25-year career, he has edited and written for multiple national trade and consumer publications including Nation's Restaurant News and Southern Living. He is a feature writer for Edible Louisville & The Bluegrass, Whisky Magazine, WhiskeyWash.com and The Bourbon Review. The author of two books, "Country Ham: A Southern Tradition of Hogs, Salt & Smoke," and the "Home Distiller's Guide to Spirits," he also serves as a ghostwriter for multiple clients.

7 thoughts on “Post mortem: Tom + Chee’s meltdown here is happening elsewhere

  1. Diane Tromboli says:

    Too bad you don’t know the real story about who backed out of what deal concerning the Sharks. Not always is it the Sharks who back out, sometimes its the people who perhaps didn’t like the route the Shark wanted to take. You don’t know anything you are only speculating and giving this unique venue a bad rap not knowing any real facts. The menu involves more than grilled cheese and tomato soup. I’ll take homemade tomato soup made with fresh tomatoes, little salt and herbs next to the processed crap Campbell’s puts out. There’s quite a creative menu at Tom + Cheese,, but with your limited intelligence you wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. Sell your crap elsewhere and get the facts before you slander someone or something you know nothing about. PC

    • Troy N says:

      If it was the case that they backed out of the deal with the sharks because they didn’t like what they wanted to do then maybe they should’ve listened to them because it seems almost half of their stores have closed. The writer did state that their food was better than a campbells or homemade grilled cheese but what you failed to comprehend was the part where he said people don’t want to spend $7-$9 for a meal there and not go there more than once a month. Again the closing of multiple stores actually suggests he does know what he is talking about. I spent more than 10 years in the restaurant industry overseeing restaurants in 4 different states and can attest that yes he does know what he is talking about. You sound like you know owners personally so you’re biased in what he said. Look for more locations to close, it’s not a great concept even with getting the free advertising from Shark Tank

    • Kelsey F says:

      Lol you’re literally using the “high iq” argument. “To be fair you have to have a high IQ to understand Tom and Chee”

  2. Harry says:

    If only they could put a ground beef patty in between the bread and cheese and call it a HAMBURGER!!! That’s it!!
    😀😀😀

  3. Doug says:

    AAfter all the hype my wife and I decided to give the new Richardson TX location a try. I love grilled cheeze and am fanatical about tomato soup. Dissapointment is the kindest thing I can say. I wanted to give the the best chance I could so, I ordered their original soup and sandwich. Uighur! The sandwich tasted like it was made from cheese wiz! The soup while tasty really was not anything special. There is a reason that the big chains did not jump in. The Richardson store is now closed as are many others. Hmmmm I wonder why?

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