Store No. 1 of The Melt, a grilled-cheese restaurant chain started by Pure Digital (the Flip camera) founder Jonathan Kaplan, opened near my office recently. I was not clear what a guy who made a name for himself in video was doing in the food business, even after I saw him in June. So I sat down with him at his new store.
Kaplan got funding from Pure Digital backers like Sequoia Capital to start his chain. He's applying some of the philosophies that guided the Flip camera's design to his restaurant: It's a simple product with limited options (five grilled-cheese options, five soups), and it has a nostalgic appeal. Who doesn't love grilled cheese?
That's Kaplan's emotional pitch, but as we talked, it became clear that he's not really in this business for any special love of sandwiches. If all he wanted was an operation to occupy his time while he figured out what to do with his portion of the $590 million that Cisco paid for Pure Digital, he'd open a single Melt store. Instead, he's planning on opening 500.
As Kaplan says, running a restaurant is a tough slog. Running a restaurant business, though, is a different thing. Yes, it requires a lot more capital, as well as different processes, but the payout is much larger. And he says, entrepreneurs (he's referring to himself here, and a lot of Silicon Valley younglings with stars in their eyes), can't stop reaching higher.
"We're trying to be a fast casual restaurant business," he says, "and we happen to have grilled cheese as our theme."
Kaplan also believes in the particular business niche of the "fast casual" restaurant, which he positions as a step up from fast food. He says it's the right slice of the market in an unsettled economy. "Nostalgic food at an affordable price is the perfect food for the economic downturn," he says.
At least in San Francisco, at The Melt No. 1, the business appears to be working. Even though the line-shortcut pre-ordering smartphone app for The Melt isn't available yet, this location had a line out the door. People I talked to, eating their melts, seemed to like the food. My quick review: I found the sandwich salty. But the soup was great.
The short, TV-friendly version of my interview with Kaplan is at the top of this post. For the full, unedited video (about 17 minutes), see the smaller video embedded here.