Jonathan Kaplan made it easy for consumers to shoot cheesy home movies when he founded the company behind the Flip Video camcorder. Now he's hoping to popularize something cheesier -- and gooier -- by starting a chain of grilled cheese restaurants that combine fast food with high-tech.
Kaplan's latest creation, The Melt, opened its first location last month in San Francisco. Plans are in the works for two more restaurants in San Francisco and one in nearby Palo Alto, Calif., by Thanksgiving. With financial backing from a venture capital heavyweight, Sequoia Capital, Kaplan hopes to open 25 to 50 restaurants within the next year and about 500 across the country within five years.
No matter how much people like grilled cheese, Kaplan's plan is audacious, considering the economy. Still, he believes that building this kind of business makes sense, particularly during a time of uncertainty.
"Economically, it's a good time right now because people want comfort food," he says, seated on a stool at one of the bar-height tables at his bright white-and-orange-hued restaurant.
Kaplan was flipping around the idea for The Melt even before the creation of the Flip Video, which the company he co-founded, Pure Digital, began selling in 2007. About 10 years ago, Kaplan says, he started researching grilled cheese to see if it could become the main food attraction for a national chain. As part of his research, he solicited customers' opinions about the sandwich at the giant Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. He was buoyed by their responses.
Kaplan was convinced a grilled cheese chain could succeed, but there was one big sticking point: How do you make the sandwiches consistent when you have hourly employees -- who aren't professional chefs -- behind the counter?
Not sure how to solve this problem at the time, he put his plan on the back burner. In the meantime, he started Pure Digital. The company's Flip Video, a simple, low-cost, pocket-sized video camera, paved the way for an entire market. In 2009, Cisco Systems bought Pure Digital for $590 million.
But Kaplan left Cisco in February and decided that it was time to give grilled cheese a go.
With a small group of advisers 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 nonstick pads, which allow the bread to toast while the cheese melts -- without squishing the sandwich.
Not surprisingly, given Kaplan's background, technology also comes into play in the way visitors can order their meals. If you don't want to wait in line, you can order on a smartphone using The Melt's website.
Kaplan believes that the technology in use at The Melt will improve the customer experience, "rather than technology that is just there for marketing reasons or technology for technology's sake."
Besides the traditional grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, The Melt's menu, at launch, features such variations as aged Gruyere on white wheat and smoked Gouda on eight-grain bread. Soup options include spicy black bean and creamy wild mushroom. Prices run $3.95 or $5.95 for a cup or bowl of soup, respectively, and $5.95 for a sandwich. The restaurant offers soup and sandwich combos for $8.95.
In a sampling of some sandwiches, the cheese was flavorful and gooey, while the bread was somewhat crisp and airy. Soups, meanwhile, tasted rich, but not too thick.