MANATEE -- A restaurant built on childhood comforts of grilled cheese and tomato soup is scouting locations for the Bradenton-Sarasota area.
Cincinnati-based Tom+Chee signed a franchisee agreement with Rally's/Checkers veteran David Williams and wife Cynthia Williams to help expand the chain to the Bradenton-Sarasota market.
The company had a table at International Council of Shopping Centers' Florida Conference in Kissimmee this week where Tampa Bay franchisee Matthew Wagner was also making the rounds.
Co-founder Corey Ward told the Herald in a phone interview Tuesday the company he and friend Trent Quackenbush started is going for the down-home approach to tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
"Grilled cheese and tomato soup is classic comfort food," Ward said. "It's not pretentious. It's really good food we're serving at an affordable price."
The company is going through a site selection process for its Sarasota restaurants, along with the rest of the Florida restaurants committed for in the Tampa and Orlando markets, Ward said.
Florida became attractive for a variety of reasons.
"We had a lot of really good applicants coming from Florida that we really liked," Ward said. "Plus, being in Ohio, a lot of people travel to Florida for vacations."
Williams has about 30 years of experience in the fast-food industry including 20 years with Checkers and Rally's. The Williams family of Tampa, are
running the Tom and Chee franchise through DCW Industries Inc. Williams could not be reached for comment, but Ward said no leases have been signed for the Bradenton-Sarasota market as they are scouting locations.
Ward said the two didn't like how sandwich shops are racing to the top for prices and those with grilled cheese ideas are too gaga for gourmet. They still grill the sandwiches the old-fashioned way, said Ward, who detests the Panini press.
"It doesn't have to be gourmet," Ward said. "It just has to taste good."
Not being gourmet doesn't mean there aren't some funky creations. Options include the Pesto+Turkey with roasted turkey, pesto, mozzarella on sourdough or the Hippy+Chee with hummus, cucumber, mixed greens, tomato and cheddar on wheat.
The soups, salads and sandwiches are all made in-house, Ward said. Part of the basic approach came from their 2009 start in a tent in Cincinnati's Fountain Square, beside the ice skating rink.
"You know the opening sequence of 'WKRP Cincinnati?'" Ward said. "That's where we were beside the fountain."
The company earned much of its exposure on ABC's "Shark Tank," where it received $600,000 in exchange for giving a 30 percent share of the company to "sharks" Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran. Now they're on their way to opening their 14th store, located in Indianapolis, after a year of national media attention.
What helped seal the deal for Corcoran on the episode aired last year was the duo's signature grilled cheese donuts.
"It's the surprise thing on our menu," Ward said. "I think a lot of people when they hear about it, think it's like a gimmick thing. It's a really good grilled cheese sandwich."
Ward called it the "perfect combination of sweet and salty" with one fewer carb than a can of Coke and about 360-370 calories.
If diners are brave enough, they can complete the Baker's Dozen challenge. That's 13 grilled cheese donuts in 10 minutes with one drink and no bathroom breaks. The record was set at 5:53 by aspiring competitive food eater Jeremiah Foster.
"When you watch him eat, It looks like the video is in fast forward," Ward said.
If diners succeed like Foster, they get a T-shirt and a photo on the wall. Losers have to pony up the $50 it costs for the sandwiches.