If there’s one thing the Midwest does well, it’s figuring out ways to start your stomach grumbling while stopping your heart. Apologies to New York City’s flash-in-the-pan cronut, but if you haven’t had the opportunity to swing through Ohio or Kentucky recently, you’re missing out on the gooey deliciousness that is the latest culinary mash-up craze: Tom+Chee’s Grilled Cheese Donut.
Weighing in at 360 calories (which is actually pretty modest for all that goodness), the decadent snack has earned the nickname “Holy Stoner Trinity of Salt, Fat and Sugar.” And good news: Tom+Chee and the GCD are heading west, with founders Corey Ward, 38, and Trew Quackenbush, 37, vowing to ultimately achieve “world domination.”
“We’re aiming to get Tom+Chee to go worldwide,” Ward tells Vocativ.
Where better to titillate taste and buds than Denver? The Mile High City is already a utopia for the marijuana set, who get the munchies around the clock after inhaling guiltless cannabis. Denver’s the latest addition to the franchise, with two new locations coming by early 2015. “I’m really excited to see how it’s going to do when it gets out there,” says Ward.
The GCD, which sells for $4 a pop, was born during the winter of 2009 under a humble tent at a Cincinnati public square. Ward, who cut his teeth as a comic book artist for both Marvel and DC, and Quackenbush, who bounced around the country as a cook, started by serving up tomato soup and a spectrum of grilled cheese sandwiches to ice skaters and red-eyed parking valets on a daily basis from their inexpensive grill.
“It was the cheapest plug-in grill you could buy,” Ward says.
Then the idea to marry sweet and salty came to them once Krispy Kreme introduced its Luther Burger—two doughnuts filled with a patty and bacon.
“We looked at it and thought, We could do that if we just got rid of the hamburger.”
And the rest has been gravy…although Ward says the Krispy Kreme location where they gleaned initial inspiration for the GCD “mysteriously burnt down.”
“Our first ‘holy crap!’ moment came at the beer fest when we brought a cooler stocked with everything we needed for the weekend,” Ward says. “We plugged in the electric grill and sold a Grilled Cheese Donut every two minutes.”
Their edible invention blew up when they introduced the signature sandwich on ABC’s investment deal show Shark Tank. And a year into their grub pit stop, they established the name Tom+Chee and opened their first brick-and-mortar restaurant five blocks from the square.
Now the classic has gone gourmet with fancy sandwiches like the Bananarama, which features caramelized banana plus Gouda cheese between two doughnuts, or the Barbara Blue, which mixes blueberry compote, ham and Brie cheese in the middle of a doughnut. Exclamation point!
What’s more, with locations across Ohio and Kentucky, one in Michigan and one in New Jersey, as well as new spots opening in Indiana, Georgia and Philly (all before Denver), the Grilled Cheese Donut is melting across the country.
Ward and Quackenbush are even fending off hungry demand from far reaches like Vietnam and the Czech Republic, and especially from officials in Dubai, who have been pressing the sandwich inventors to import their treats to the desert.
“They keep calling us to open out there,” Ward says. “But if we go anywhere outside the U.S., it will probably be Canada because it’s easier to keep an eye on what’s going on in Canada.”