by LR Kindel

January 20147Grilled cheese and tomato soup is a classic concept, and one that was greeted with adoring crowds when Tom + Chee opened in December in Hamburg.

At a barbecue with their wives in 2009, franchise founders Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward realized that downtown Cincinnati had few dining options at night other than bar food or fine dining. “[There was] nowhere really you could take a date for under $100 dollars” said Corey Ward, co-owner of Tom+Chee. Both couples visited New York City and noticed how the one-offering restaurant concept worked there and brought it to Cincinnati’s Fountain Square.

Ward and Quackenbush’s one offering concept? Tomato Soup and Grilled Cheese, now known as Tom+Chee. They wanted to “find one thing to make and do it well,” said Ward.

In fall of 2009, Ward and Quackenbush went to the Cincinnati Center City Development (3CDC) with grilled cheese and tomato soup to pitch the beginnings of Tom+Chee at Fountain Square. “Don’t tell me no,” Ward said to the 3CDC and received the go-ahead to set up a food tent on Fountain Square for the month of December for a pop up restaurant. In that month at Fountain
Square, Ward and Quackenbush served several thousand grilled cheese sandwiches, cups of coffee and hot chocolate, often running out. Cincinnati food blogger, Sharon Rudd, discovered the tent and referred to Tom+Chee as the “The little Pop-Up that could.”

After the summer of 2009 in the tent on Fountain Square, they opened the first Tom+Chee on East Court Street in downtown Cincinnati almost a year later. At Fountain Square, Quackenbush and Ward debuted the Tom+Chee signature Grilled Cheese Doughnut—literally a glazed doughnut sliced in half, buttered, and grilled with cheese in between. The Grilled Cheese Doughnut launched Tom+Chee into the media spotlight when Adam Richman sampled the Blueberry Blue on his Travel Channel show “Man vs. Food” that aired in October 2011, as well as two episodes of “Amazing Eats” on Travel Channel. On April 2, 2012, the Grilled Cheese Doughnut also made it to network television on ABC’s “The Chew” where Ward sent exact instructions and ingredients on how to make signature sandwich. In addition, the named the Grilled Cheese Doughnut one of the seven best sandwiches of 2012. This was only the start of their media rise.

After two years of applying and emails, Ward and Quackenbush made it on to ABC’s “Shark Tank” on May 17, 2013 to pitch Tom+Chee to the sharks. Ward says “We took the worst possible route” by applying on the casting page and filling out the form. Ward laughs and says the email Tom+Chee sent would vary during the application process but the headline remained “Two Couples from the Midwest trying to Achieve the American Dream.”

They achieved that dream from Sharks Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks and Barbara Corcoran, New York City real estate mogul. The initial pitch on “Shark Tank” for Tom+Chee started with an initial investment of $600,000 with 10% stake of Tom+Chee profits but ended with $600,000 initial investment and 30% stake.

After the show aired, Quackenbush and Ward met with Cuban’s team only to realize that Cuban’s offer and Tom+Chee didn’t match. In the end, they didn’t take Cuban’s deal because “it was the right decision for us” said Ward. “We restructured with Barbara Corcoran, leaving us with more of our company intact.” Corcoran has
a fancy grilled cheese doughnut named in her honor: the Barbara Blue. This particular creation consists of a glazed doughnut with melted brie plus ham and blueberry compote.

Ward stresses Tom+Chee’s commitment to “a family-friendly environment that’s budget friendly.” He also emphasizes the quality of ingredients in the food they serve, making as much in house as possible. Tom+Chee also serves soy cheese for vegans and gluten free preparation for their gluten free bread so that it is truly gluten free. The grilled cheese sandwiches run the gamut from building your own traditional grilled cheese all the way to the “Hippy+Chee” which is a combination of hummus, cucumber mixed greens, tomato, cheddar cheese on wheat bread.

On “Man vs. Food” Adam Richman sampled the “Armagoetta”: Goetta, cherry peppers, fried onions, sweet hot mustard, pepper jack cheese, on two different slices of bread-on sourdough and one rye. Richman called it the “cheese-pocalypse” on the episode. This is just one of many of their signature sandwiches (the menu is extensive).

Tom+Chee’s fancy grilled cheese bestseller is the “BBQ Bacon” that includes BBQ potato chips with bacon and American cheese on white bread. Second place sandwich goes to the “Mac+Cheese”: Mac & cheese, cheddar cheese on white bread. Another popular sandwich is the “Three Little Pigs” with spicy pork rinds, ham, bacon, swiss and cheddar on rye.

Locating Lexington’s first Tom + Chee in Hamburg was thanks to the synchronicity of availability and timing. “Originally when we looked at the location it just felt like it fit with the Tom & Chee concept” said Mike Levy, one of the owners of the Lexington franchise. Levy adds,

“We’re proud and thrilled to be in the Hamburg Place community. They’ve been really supportive.”

The Hamburg location of Tom+Chee opened December 2 at the former Bajio location on War Admiral Way and is open 7 days a week. Check out www.tomandchee for more on their menu
and tom+chee Lexington on facebook.

This article appears on page 7 of the January 2014 print edition of Hamburg Journal.