Pictured above: Heidi and Nate
Making artisan grilled cheese sandwiches started out as little more than a hobby for Heidi Gibson. But she then entered grilled cheese competitions in Los Angeles and the Bay Area to compete against up to 500 chefs—and started winning.
In 2009, after she earned yet another trophy (her collection includes a total of seven) at a competition in Dolores Park, she and her then-boyfriend (now husband) Nate Pollak were approached by a fan who asked them if they had ever considered opening a restaurant.
Heidi and Nate had recently been laid off from their corporate tech jobs in the wake of the 2008 recession, and as Nate referred to their situation in his interview with me; they were “conveniently unemployed.”
After a few drinks on that evening of the fateful Dolores Park competition, the couple decided that the idea of starting a restaurant wasn’t all that far-fetched. They both had business management skills courtesy of their former jobs, and Nate had managed a bar while in college.
So, the pair turned to the local Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for resources and took small business ownership classes at the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center to begin drafting their business plan.
Due to business closures in the recession, many retail spaces in San Francisco were up for grabs at lower than average prices. So Heidi and Nate approached a landlord in South Park armed with their business plan and award-winning grilled cheese sandwiches; they were able to negotiate a rent they could afford.
After a year and a half of developing the menu, collaborating with local vendors for ingredients, attending cheese tastings, and building the restaurant with the help of a few carpenter friends; Heidi and Nate opened The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen on May 29, 2010.
On opening day, the line was over 400 people long and Heidi was so nervous she cried. The two had ended up draining their 401ks and maxing out their credit cards in order to afford the starting costs of the restaurant, so they had negative bank account balances by the time they opened.
It turned out that grilled cheeses were the comfort food people needed during the recession. Business was so good (in part thanks to their premier location just blocks away from where the 2010 World Series was happening), that just a year and a half later, they were able to open a second location. Two years after that, they opened a third, and in 2016, they began franchising out in Florida.
By 2018, the restaurant had served close to 5 million grilled cheese sandwiches, and the couple published two cookbooks: a best-seller called Grilled Cheese Kitchen and a guide to making their signature pastries, Muffins and Biscuits.
But the success was draining. At times, the couple was working 18-hour days and sleeping on the floor of the 800-square foot restaurant in order to prepare for the next day’s breakfast service. Eventually, Heidi went back to a better paying job.
“It’s challenging to have both partners working at a small business,” Nate admitted.
Now, the restaurant (now operating only at the original location) is facing new challenges with the pandemic.
Between weddings, corporate events at Google and Netflix, and graduations; the catering team is usually booked up every weekend of the summer. But the biggest hit of all isn’t the loss of private events—it’s the lack of Giants games, concerts, foot races, and other entertainment events that take place nearby; not to mention Outside Lands, where the restaurant has been serving for the past 10 festivals.
And delivery apps, though helpful in reaching customers sheltering-in-place, aren’t making up for the lost revenue. “Our grilled cheeses are best enjoyed fresh. They’re not a very delivery-friendly item. So we’re now making only 10% of the sales we are usually making,” Nate said.
Still, he has refused to cut salaries. The 11 remaining employees have full benefits even though they are down to less than half of their usual hours.
But Nate remains optimistic and is getting creative. While TAGCK is usually only open for breakfast and lunch, a new concept is in the works that will offer happy hour style food for pickup and delivery out of the same main restaurant. The new venture will have its own brand and the menu will include items like an Impossible burger patty melt and beer.
Hopefully, the new offerings will help combat the loss of sales that stems from the lack of baseball game traffic and tech workers from nearby startups.
“When people don’t go to work and stay at home, it trickles down to the people who serve the working population.”
The restaurant is throwing a social-distancing compliant anniversary party on Saturday, June 20. They’ll be throwing it back to their original grilled cheese prices (about $5-$6) so you can enjoy their signature sandwiches like the Mouse Trap (sharp cheddar, Havarti, and Monterey Jack on Wedemeyer sourdough that was custom-made for the restaurant) and the Mac n’ Cheese Grilled Cheese (slow-baked, five-cheese mac n’ cheese stuffed inside garlic-buttered sourdough) for less.