The restaurant business is notoriously complex: The products, inventory management and staff have to be managed simultaneously, and everything has to be done as immediately as possible. But Spencer Rubin, the founder of Melt Shop, has found a path to big-time success by pacing himself and capitalizing on a simple love of grilled cheese sandwiches. "Everyone knows grilled cheese," Rubin says. "Everyone's had it before and I've yet to hear anyone say, 'I hate grilled cheese sandwiches.'"
Since opening his first Melt Shop location and kiosk in New York City, the Cornell University graduate has plans to open three or four additional stores in the city in the next 12 to 18 months, and 20 to 50 stores within five years.
The almost McDonald's-like expansion isn't a coincidence. "I went into [the restaurant industry] thinking I'm going to try to be the next Ray Kroc," Rubin says. "We're mashing two worlds together—fast-casual quick-serve and the homegrown cafe sandwich shop."
Appetite for Growth
But Rubin didn't rush to the top. When he was 24, he worked for a restaurant development company as a product manager. He did any odd jobs that were needed to glean as much information about the restaurant industry as he could. He was there to learn—he didn't want to make the mistakes of other talents before him.
"A lot of great chefs who probably make the best food in the world never get the chance to show off their skills because they spend all their money before they can even get started," he says.
When Melt Shop first started, Rubin hired a chef as a consultant. Since then, he has made all the tweaks and changes. Only about three sandwiches from the first iteration of the concept remain.
"The menu was a little fancier than it is now," Rubin says. "We tried to make it more approachable, more comfort food-oriented. My approach was to bring it back down to earth while bringing some unique elements into it."
Room for More?
But fast-casual is an extremely competitive industry. The rise of "better burger" chains and upscale Mexican joints has created a new segment, and everyone wants a piece of it. So how does Rubin, who recently made the Forbes "30 Under 30" list, plan to succeed?
"There's got to be room for a few major grilled cheese players," Rubin says. "We're not presenting people with something so unfamiliar that [they're] scared to try it. [And yet] our product is different enough that we're going to make space and blow our way in."
Starting a grilled cheese joint on the verge of major expansion, Rubin says, is “exactly what I wanted to be doing.”
Photo: Nic Alegre