The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
When the economic downturn of 2008 cost Heidi Gibson and Nate Pollak their stable office jobs, the husband-and-wife duo were launched out of the corporate world and into the restaurant industry. We talked to Pollak about how they used their life savings and award-winning recipes to open The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen in San Francisco, crafting a neighborhood concept that’s now ready for the national stage.
From Corporate Woes to Kitchen Pros
After their unexpected career shakeups, Gibson and Pollak began working independently on plans for their own small businesses before ultimately deciding to open a grilled cheese concept together.
“It just so happens that Heidi, as a hobby, was competing in the Grilled Cheese Invitational, which is a national grilled cheese contest, and at the time she was the winningest contestant in the history of that competition,” Pollak explains. “We took the recipes and the award-winning stuff that she had created for those contests and developed a whole menu around it.”
They were ready to turn their plan into a brick-and-mortar reality a year later, but realized they’d once again have to find a way to overcome the United States’ stale economy.
“I personally walked into over 35 banks and was denied a loan to start the business because it was 2009 and, despite what the White House was telling us, you could only get a small business loan if you had already been in operation for 3 years,” Pollak says. “[It didn’t make] sense that we couldn’t get a loan because we owned a home in San Francisco and we had perfect credit, but the banks weren’t lending at all.”
Ultimately, they decided to open The American with their life savings. Opening a restaurant during a recession was a gamble, though not necessarily because of the potential financial risk.
“We knew once we opened, that the revenue was there. The customers were lining up around the block to eat our food, and we had a lot of great buzz and great brand reputation, so we were very confident in our ability to make money,” Pollak says. “But we weren’t confident in our ability to really operate the store seamlessly.”
Since neither had prior foodservice industry experience, Gibson and Pollak had to operate The American while adjusting to the ins and outs of owning a restaurant. Pollak says it was 4 years before they hired a manager so they could occasionally leave the restaurant during operating hours, and estimates that it took 5 years for them to completely settle into the business.
“I think for most foodservice operators that’s what it takes, especially when you’re not from the industry,” Pollak says. “You don’t understand the grunt work, and you don’t understand what it takes to get people to come to work every day and make food, and you don’t understand what it takes to serve customers day in and day out seven days a week. There’s no working from home, and there’s no sympathy, so either you’re there making food and creating a lot of value for your customers or you’re out of business.“
“We Aim to Cheese”
Like many comfort foods that have become popular on restaurant menus, grilled cheese is appealing to customers because it’s something most of them first ate when they were younger, so the American Grilled Cheese Kitchen hopes to recreate the sentimentality of eating gooey cheese and crispy bread as a child or college student.
“Grilled cheese needs to be nostalgic, it needs to be warm, it needs to be whimsical, and it needs to be fun,” Pollak explains. “If you’re eating a grilled cheese, you’re either looking for something really fun or you’re looking for a comforting experience. For everyone, the grilled cheese sandwich is very personal.”
The American menu features a dozen or so sandwiches made with carefully sourced ingredients, including Tillamook cheese from Oregon, turkey and bacon from Zoe’s Meats in Santa Rosa, Calif., and many other locally produced ingredients.
“One of our values as a company is to support our local food ecosystem,” Pollak says. “What that means is partnering with local vendors and smaller businesses. We want to showcase their products because as our business grows, their business grows. We know we’re working with people who are doing the right thing when it comes to feeding cows and raising cage-free chickens, for example, or producing responsible dairy with no hormones and no preservatives, or not using anything artificial.”
Making a grilled cheese sandwich can be simple, but each option at The American must be carefully constructed to achieve crispy, melty perfection, whether a customer wants a gourmet experience like the three-cheese Mousetrap or a hearty meal with meats and vegetables like the Club Turkey. Having a smaller number of tested sandwiches that aren’t piled high with toppings also helps each location prevent inventory spoilage and ensure faster service.
“If you were to put five different types of meats, three cheeses, four different types of vegetables, and two sauces inside two slices of bread, and the customer needs that sandwich cooked in 3 minutes so they can get back to work – that’s impossible,” Pollak explains. “What you’re going to end up with is burnt bread and a cold interior and maybe some of the cheese melted. The criteria is a golden crust and melted cheese with a warm and melty inside. If you can’t achieve that, it’s not a grilled cheese, and it’s not worth doing. We’re very careful with how many ingredients are on the sandwich, which ingredients, how they cook, what their cook time will be, [and] how that affects the bread toasting.”
Grilled Cheese for Each Coast
The American currently has two locations in downtown San Francisco. A third location, originally the restaurant’s second location, opened in the city’s Mission District as a more complicated concept that, while successful, strayed too far from their original vision.
“When we opened our second location, we dramatically expanded the menu,” Pollak explains. “We had changed the concept to being a dinner place with more than grilled cheese, and we very quickly realized that’s one way to do it, but what we were really good at was grilled cheese and running a really great grilled cheese shop.“
After selling the Mission location in 2016, they returned to the concept’s roots and focused on the more streamlined menu featured in the downtown locations. Now, Pollak and Gibson have finalized a franchising partnership that will lead to The American’s first locations outside of San Francisco.
“I’m a big dreamer [and] I love what we do,” Pollak says. “We serve great food, are a responsible employer, and are really good to our employees. For example, the minute you start working here, you get a full health care plan and vacation time, even if you are a 16-year-old kid and you’re washing dishes. We wanted to spread that value.“
Restaurant employees and grilled cheese enthusiasts alike can expect to soon find The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen locations in Fort Myers and other South Florida cities.