After Jonathan Kaplan sold his Flip HD video camera business to Cisco Systems in 2009 for a reported $590 million, he became obsessed with something quite different: the perfect grilled cheese sandwich.
Specifically, he was interested in turning out an impeccable sandwich every time, using premium ingredients such as sharp cheddar, brie or Gruyère, and fresh-baked sourdough, garlic or artisanal wheat bread. At The Melt, his popular chain of soup-and-sandwich shops in San Francisco, Kaplan has not only achieved that goal but revolutionized the fast-casual dining scene through technology.
Customers of The Melt who opt to prepay online or via smartphone receive a QR code. When they walk into any location, they can skip the line and scan their order at a kiosk near the cash register. As soon as the scan is processed, cooks get to work using a proprietary, panini-style press from Electrolux that grills the sandwich using radiant infrared heat. According to CMO Paul Coletta, The Melt's presses "balance two specialized tasks: toasting the crust and melting the cheese." And they do this perfectly, time after time, in less than 60 seconds.
Kaplan's first store opened in the city's Financial District last September; by February 2012, there were two more nearby and one in Palo Alto. All told, Coletta expects to have 21 stores by the end of the year. It's an ambitious plan, but thanks to Kaplan's personal investment in the concept and undisclosed funding from Sequoia Capital, there is reportedly enough money to open 20 stores at a cost of $500,000 to $1 million each. Kaplan expects to have 500 stores across the country by 2015.
Judging from the stats surrounding fast-casual restaurants, this ambitious plan isn't a fantasy. The segment grew roughly 10 percent faster than any other restaurant slice during the recession; a report from industry tracker NetWorld Alliance estimated total revenue for fast-casual dining at more than $23 billion in 2010. Last summer, when asked why Sequoia, a tech VC heavyweight, would invest in a sandwich shop, Kaplan cited the appeal of Chipotle's market capitalization ($12.9 billion at press time).
Coletta dismisses any talk of licensing The Melt's technology or bringing it to other types of foods. "We've perfected the art of grilled cheese," he says. "Now we want to focus on building that brand as best as we can."
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Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.