Jonathan Kaplan, the inventor of the Flip Video camera, debuted his latest invention on Tuesday: A San Francisco grilled cheese restaurant called The Melt. The futuristic lunch spot, which uses a specialized code system of ordering, a newly designed cooking contraption from Electrolux, and reportedly the same designer as Apple stores, has been at the epicenter of a pretty healthy buzz in both tech blogs and food media in the run-up to its opening. But so far, very little has been said about the actual product. And while tech writers and food scenesters have been fascinated by the whole venture, some grilled cheese aficionados are pretty suspicious of Kaplan's idea and its execution.
You can learn as much as you want about Kaplan's restaurant concept and his background by reading one of the many, many articles that have covered this opening. But briefly, he's an inventor and tech millionaire who thinks a specialized quick-cooking device will render uniform grilled cheese sandwiches at a rate that can support a national chain. The Associated Press describes the device:
With a small group of advisers - including chef and restaurateur Michael Mina - Kaplan approached Swedish home appliance maker Electrolux about making a special contraption that would create uniform grilled cheese sandwiches. They came up with a machine that combines two induction burners, a microwave and non-stick pads, which allow the bread to toast while the cheese melts - without squishing the sandwich as a panini press might do.
There's also a specialized ordering mechanism, wherein you order from your smart phone via the restaurant's website, receive a code, and use that to collect your order when you get to the restaurant.
Naturally, all this technology has gone over huge in the city that helped birth the Internet. But San Francisco is not just a tech hub, it's also a center of specialty food purveyors, boutique chefs, and unique dining trends. Unsurprisingly, the city has a thriving grilled cheese underground. The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen opened there last year, and a street-side card-table operation called Toasty Melts that popped up in 2009 relaunched as a full-fledged trendy lunch truck in April. San Francisco is also the home of Michael Davidson, known as the Grilled Cheese Guy, a scientist by day and five-time winner of the Grilled Cheese Invitational, who moonlights as a food cart chef.
On Tuesday night, Davidson organized what he called a "grilled cheese flashmob" of about six people at The Melt to get some initial impressions of the newcomer's wares. (It should be noted Davidson is technically a competitor, but he promised to be somewhat neutral for the purposes of accuracy.) "It was like a Starbucks," he told The Atlantic Wire via telephone on Wednesday. "Better than bad, but not great." Of the group, "one person liked it, but they liked the sandwich they made up that wasn’t on the menu. They also liked the secret menu item [a batter-and-jam concoction called something like PB and J with no PB]. So ironically, the best thing on the menu was not there."
Some ingredients fell a bit short, Davidson said. "The bread is what’s important in grilled cheese. They’re using pretty standard bread, your normal loaf of pre-sliced bread. I understand they probably have to do that if they’re going to go on a national level, but that’s going to be their downfall." Also, he said, the high-tech cooking didn't work out so well. "We ate the entire menu more than once, and the variation between the sandwiches, how well they were cooked, was extreme. One of them was completely undercooked, the cheese was like hard. And the one next to it was as close to perfect as they can get for crunchiness, and that came the same round... We saw the machine produce one that was burnt, and there was another one that they had to put back in for 20 seconds. That was maybe the most shocking thing, but also good for me, to learn they hadn’t perfected the repeatable grilled cheese, as I had feared."
But the design, he said, was excellent. "I met a girl who works for him [Kaplan], by chance. She told me that the designer of the place is the guy who designs Apple stores. That made sense. It’s really well-designed. It’s very cute, it’s a style I like. It’s very modern, simple, the menu’s simple. It makes sense.” And the staff is "super friendly," Davidson said.
Other grilled cheese enthusiasts haven't been so vocal, but have expressed moderate concern. "We’re curious to see how they do," said Toasty Melts co-owner Tiffany Lan. "If they launch here and they do well here, it’s a good sign." But the Toasty Melts Twitter stream snarked, "If you don't actually 'grill' the cheese it's not really a GRILLED cheese." Lan's partner Alex Rando said, "we’re more of an artisan—though I hate that word—style of sandwiches." He buys specialty cheese from Napa and they use locally baked artisan bread.
Our experts agreed that The Melt's prices were a bit steep for what it was selling. "I don’t know if that works everywhere, especially at that price point," Rando said. "I don’t know anybody in the Midwest that would pay $9.99 for a grilled cheese and a soup." Davidson, though, did say the soups were great. "I guess it’s a growing consensus, that the soups at the Melt are better than the sandwiches."