No one should be surprised that Michael Inwald has sold $5 million worth of grilled cheese sandwiches by age 32. His path to becoming founder and president of Cheeseboy, the country’s first quick-service grilled cheese franchise chain, was short and direct.
As a kid, the Queens, NY, native would only eat his vegetables after his parents melted American cheese over them. He’ll never forget his first visit to a fondue restaurant when he was 16. And his favorite birthday presents were Brie wheels from his sisters. When he headed to Yale Business School in 2009, it was with the hope that he would gain the financial know-how and connections to raise the capital to start a grilled cheese restaurant chain—never mind that his only food-service experience was volunteering in a Manhattan soup kitchen.
At Yale, he bought some sandwich presses, began testing his product in earnest at country fairs, and made videos of people enjoying his grilled cheese. At the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute he found mentorship and introductions to investors. “Some showed interest, but I was dead set on finding substantial capital—in the millions,” Inwald says.
Determination Pays Off
Institute director James Boyle, who is used to seeing tech and biotech startups form there, recalls, “The kneejerk reaction of many of us was, ‘How can you possibly turn grilled cheese all by itself into a business? You don't have any proprietary advantage. You can't get a patent on grilled cheese. What are you going to do?’” But Boyle says Inwald was determined there was an un-served market, had a clear idea of what his costs were, and believed he could make money at a price point that would be attractive to a large demographic. “He just kept at it,” Boyle says.
One day, Inwald went to the home of a wealthy Yale alumnus and served grilled cheese to his family. The man wrote Inwald the check he needed. While still in school he opened a concept store, Grilled Cheese To Go, 10 minutes from Yale’s campus in a Milford, Conn., shopping mall. In 2010 he opened the first Cheeseboy in Boston’s South Station. “We realized we were on to something,” Inwald says.
To compensate for his lack of industry experience, Inwald says he has surrounded himself with experienced restaurant professionals. “My job is to support the support center—solve problems, manage finance and accounting, oversee a lot of our marketing activities, and build training platforms and manuals.”
Today, Cheeseboy employs more than 130 people and operates 10 stores in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Nation’s Restaurant News this year named the company a top 50 “Breakout Brand.”
Inwald says, “We have a lot more growth ahead of us.”
One way he’s gaining attention for the brand is by giving back to Cheeseboy customers’ communities. The company is a major supporter of Paul Newman’s Serious Fun Network for children with serious illnesses, and Cheesboy has given away 40,000 sandwiches to encourage “Acts ofKindness.” Their pay-it-forward cards offer a free sandwich to charitable organization volunteers, and a second free sandwich to the do-gooder of the volunteer’s choice.
What would you do for 1 million grilled cheese sandwiches?
To celebrate the sale of Cheeseboy’s 1 millionth sandwich this month, the company is hosting a contest asking, “What would you do for 1 million grilled cheese sandwiches?” Customers enter by explaining how they would use $10,000 to help make an impact on the world. A winner will get a free sandwich every week for life.
Of his four years in business, Inwald says, “I learn something every day. At the beginning, I didn’t know what I didn’t know.” Has he tired of cheese yet? “There’s not a day I will go without cheese, and I always look forward to eating our tomato basil classic.” It’s as if his company motto is his personal mantra: The best things in life are cheese.