On a sunny spring afternoon, patrons ranging in age from grade-school students to senior citizens sit around bright yellow tables at Melt Shop, a fast-casual restaurant in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The common thread that links them is the love of a staple that’s as classic as it is versatile: the grilled cheese. “This is one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in my life,” one regular raves. “And I’m four-score-and-many years old, so when I say ‘best sandwich in my life,’ you should take it seriously.”
Founded in 2011 by Spencer Rubin ’08, Melt Shop offers a menu that’s both comforting and indulgent: nearly a dozen varieties of grilled cheese, plus crispy tater tots and thick milkshakes. Melt Shop’s wares have gotten ink in a variety of major publications including the Wall Street Journal, New York Post, and New York magazine. Sampling its classic grilled cheese, a writer for the Daily Meal declared it a “masterpiece.” “This is the type of sandwich where, when you take your first bite, you can literally hear the crunch of your teeth sinking into the toasted, buttery bread,” the reviewer enthused. “A river of warm, gooey American cheese, paired with equal amounts of tomato and caramelized onion followed. Fireworks exploded. Rainbows appeared. Music began to sound in my ears.” Zagat called Rubin a “self-made grilled cheese magnate,” and New Jersey Monthly dubbed him the “Maven of Melted Cheese.” In 2013, at twenty-six, he was named to Forbes‘s “30 Under 30” list in the food category.
Melt Shop has five stores in Manhattan and one in a Long Island mall; the latest addition, in Washington, D.C., opened in February, and more are in the works. Rubin, whose title is managing partner, says he puts in an average of 100 hours per week when he’s launching a new location. “When you have a big opening and you have the right team, there’s no better feeling—it’s like winning a championship,” he says. “You have to make sure you really have the passion for it, because it can be a ton of work. But when you see customers happy, it’s the most rewarding thing.”
During Rubin’s Cornell days, his favorite sandwich was Collegetown Bagels’ BLT—so it’s not surprising that his preferred Melt menu item is the Maple Bacon. Wedged between two slices of white bread, it’s a gooey mess of sharp cheddar, Brick spread (a blend of aged Wisconsin brick and cheddar cheeses), and thick-cut, maple-coated bacon. Another of the restaurant’s unconventional creations combines hand-battered fried chicken, pepper jack cheese, red cabbage slaw, and secret “Melt Sauce” on sourdough. A vegetarian option called the Big Skinny serves up mozzarella, grilled mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, red peppers, arugula, and sherry vinaigrette dressing on sourdough.
Rubin—whose bio on the Melt website simply reads, “Jersey Native, Sandwich Junkie, Hopeful Entrepreneur”—knew he wanted to be a restaurateur from an early age. Although neither of his parents was involved in the culinary world, he grew up with an appreciation for home cooking. “Going food shopping together was something my mom and I did all the time,” he says. “In high school I usually cooked a family dinner for us at least three times a week.” Although he pondered culinary school, Rubin became more interested in the business side of the industry. At the School of Hotel Administration, he created his own restaurant development major by combining courses in hospitality, food, and real estate.
A student internship at the Modern, a fine-dining restaurant in the Museum of Modern Art, showed Rubin that the formal scene wasn’t for him. After a few years of working for a firm that provides real estate, design, and construction services to restaurants, he settled on grilled cheese as the perfect basis for a fast-casual empire. “It felt like the right time for something innovative,” he says, “yet nostalgic and familiar.” To develop the project he teamed up with Aurify Brands, a New York-based restaurant incubator, which provided funding and guidance. For their debut site, they settled on a 300-square-foot kiosk in an open-air plaza in the heart of Midtown—a tiny space with a prime location to capture the corporate lunch crowd while keeping costs down. “We had the idea, but we didn’t start developing the concept until we saw the space,” Rubin recalls. “I said, ‘This is where a grilled cheese shop should be.’ “