There’s no shortage of “we were so small when we started” stories in the restaurant business, but few companies had an inauspicious a start as Tom + Chee (short for “tomato soup and grilled cheese).
It began under a tent in Cincinnati’s Fountain Square park in the dead of winter 2009, and the founders cleared out their bank accounts to buy the tent, a griddle and a three-compartment sink.
“We started selling grilled cheese in the freezing cold, yes,” said Corey Ward, who co-owns Tom + Chee with Trew Quackenbush. Ward is the marketing and concept development guy, and Quackenbush, a veteran chef, provides the food sensibilities. “But it was really good grilled cheese, something different and something people really wanted.”
Good enough to have two buzzing outlets (one in the Queen City, the other across the river in Newport on the Levee) and one on the way in Louisville, which is set to open May 22 in the slot last held by Penn Station at 1704 Bardstown Road.
The mini-chain’s grilled cheese donut and extensive sandwich and soup lineup has drawn the attention of TV shows such as “Man vs. Food” and “Today.” But better than that, the concept has drawn hordes since opening in an actual building in 2011.
“After about a month, we had lines going out the door at lunch,” Ward said. “That’s when we knew we were on to something significant.”
Not long after, the property manager at Newport on the Levee called “and basically handed us an entire restaurant if we’d just open there, so we did. It’s twice the size of our Cincinnati operation, and on weekends we go on an hour wait.”
For grilled cheese.
“Ours is really different. We see it as a cool platform to do a lot of other stuff with,” Ward began. “We use a whole variety of different breads, we add ingredients like potato chips. We roast our own turkey, make our own pesto, we use pepperoni and roast beef. It’s a lot of things.” (Indeed it is. Have a look at the menu.)
Ward said his Louisville staff is already hired and in training. To check on the progress of the Louisville franchise (owned by Natalie and Rich Kinsley), he and Quackenbush visited on Derby weekend and were impressed.
“There’s nothing like (the Highlands) in Cincinnati, nothing even close,” he said, adding that he has yet to take in the restaurant rows on Frankfort Avenue, East Market or Main Street. “To have that many independently owned businesses in one area makes it exciting for us. Tom + Chee will be a great fit there.”
Food is affordable (the most expensive creation is $6, while most are $3.50) and indulgent. Not a lot of low-cal stuff going on, but given the wide range of ingredients and combos, it looks flavorful.
When it does open, operating hours will be 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday-Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Sundays. “And we may stay open later as we see how business goes.”