New York City is considered one of the nation’s fast-casual incubators — if a chain can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
And now that grilled-cheese concept Melt Shop has comfortably ensconced itself in Manhattan, it’s looking to expand.
The chain’s parent company, Aurify Brands, is no stranger to scaling up.
With a massive Five Guys franchise group in New York, Melt Shop has some serious experience behind it.
There are plans to double the chain’s location count after netting $22.5 million in Series B funding in fall 2015; there are already several in the greater New York area, as well as a new store in the Mall of America in Minnesota.
Melt Shop has four locations in Manhattan, so I decided to head over to one to see what the chain is like.
I’m visiting the Melt Shop on 26th Street in New York City, which is dangerously close to our offices.
Most of the shops are cozy affairs — low on space but well organized and clean.
The menu is fairly simple. There are 11 sandwich options ranging from the classic grilled cheese to a packed turkey club, as well as several sides including the traditional tomato soup. Interestingly, the menus differ slightly at some locations, so what you see here may not be all that’s available. Not sure if the “artisanal” sobriquet fits, but we’ll see.
The further away on the menu you get from the classic grilled cheese, the more the items come off as just cheesy sandwiches. Is it still a grilled cheese if there’s a hunk of fried chicken slathered in blue-cheese sauce in it? I’m sure there’s quite the schism in the grilled-cheese community on this, but for the sake of ease, I’m going to allow it.
I order at the counter and take a buzzer so I know when my order is ready.
Because the space is small, you can watch just about everything be prepared; my Nutella milkshake is hand-spun in front of me.
There’s no way to hide the prep; the sandwiches are actually grilled freshly, flattened with spatulas on the grill top.
For being so tiny, there is a fair amount of seating, including sit-down tables and a little bar. The decor is simple and bright — yellow is obviously the crux of the color scheme. Gleaming and sunny subway tiles are everywhere.
Following traditional fast-casual cues, the rest of the store is rich with warm woods and stainless-steel elements. I would lament the same old cookie-cutter fast-casual look, but the insistently cheery yellow drenching everything else brightens up the style considerably — this is no bland Chipotle interior.
Within six minutes, my order arrives — I’m supposed to bring the buzzer up to the counter, but the incredibly friendly staff brought the order right to me. I decided to try the “Classic” grilled cheese with tomato and caramelized onions added, the “Fried Chicken” sandwich, a side of loaded tots, and a Nutella shake.
The loaded tots are instantly a favorite. While anything with fried potato, cheese, bacon, and jalapeños is bound to win my heart, these are done wonderfully.
The tots are crisp and hot, and the cheese is melty and rich. And there’s no skimping on the bacon or pepper either — they’re truly loaded. At $6.43, they don’t come cheap, however. If you want the golden brown tots for less, I’d recommend just a plain order of them for $2.99, dusted with Parmesan cheese and parsley. They’re the most gourmet you can get with little fried-potato pillows.
The classic grilled cheese is a simple, lovable sandwich: American cheese on toasted, buttery white bread, for $5.05. Hard to mess up, but hard to stand out among the cheesy, madding crowd.
And indeed, alone it may not cut it; cheese and bread can only go so far — and $5 for just that seems a bit much, even for New York City. But with the addition of tomatoes and caramelized onions for $0.92, the sandwich opens up with flavor and depth.
The tomato brings a fresh respite from the incredibly rich and melty cheese, while the onions are perfectly grilled, adding a slight smoky sweetness to every bite. The rich and savory sandwich becomes much more rounded and fleshed out with the add-ons. The bread is toasted well, and holds up to the molten cheese with a satisfying crunch.
On to the fried chicken sandwich, a monstrous affair stuffed with red coleslaw and dripping with “Melt Sauce.” The portions at Melt Shop are rather large — and they better be for the price. This sandwich costs $8.96, which is a lot for a grilled cheese, although slightly better if you see it as a hulking fried-chicken sandwich, which it essentially is.
The chicken hunk is enormous, causing some difficulties in holding the sandwich without dismantling it. The red cabbage coleslaw adds a vibrant pop of color, as well as a clarifying vinegar tone. The whole thing sits between some flawlessly toasted sourdough slices. It’s a great choice for this sandwich, as the tangy sourdough reacts well with the rich subtlety of the chicken.
The meat is juicier than one would expect — in a word, it’s good. Really good. Fried to a crunch yet deliciously tender. While the Melt Sauce, likely mustard-based from what I can tell, adds a subtle, savory richness to taste, the pepper-jack cheese takes a surprising back seat to the other flavors, rarely asserting itself.
As far as shakes go, this one is decent. It’s difficult to find fault with shakes. But I will say this: I expected a fully Nutella shake, while this is more of a vanilla shake with a healthy Nutella swirl. It weakens the flavor a bit, so if you’re a diehard Nutella fan, be prepared. Priced at $4.82, it could be worse.
Be aware, while the food is excellent on the whole, it is rather on the pricey side. It’s no $175 prix fixe power lunch, but a sandwich and a side will run between $10 and $20.
Can Melt Shop capture the nation’s heart — or stomachs? Probably. It has all the components of a successful fast-casual chain in the making: quality food, quick prep, and a simple and trendy menu at roughly the market price point. Keep your eyes peeled for a Melt Shop; one may be setting up shop near you.