CINCINNATI -- The country just can't get enough of Tom + Chee.
The homegrown eatery known for its designer soups and grilled cheese sandwiches returned to national television Friday for an update segment on ABC’s “Shark Tank."
Founders Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward first appeared on the show in May , when they won an investment deal with “shark” Barbara Corcoran. They did so with a playful pitch for their restaurant chain, which they portrayed as serving up a contemporary take on American culinary classics that play to customers' “kid at heart.”
Mixing their compelling personalities with tasty food and an equally delicious business model, the budding restaurateurs received $600,000 in exchange for 30 percent of the company Corcoran, who asked for a second sample of the grilled cheese donuts for which Tom + Chee has become known.
The update segment that aired at 9 p.m. Friday was filmed at Corcoran’s house on Fire Island, N.Y, where she invited Quackenbush, Ward and other successful “Shark Tank” participants for an entrepreneurial retreat.
Their second appearance on the ABC show revealed quite a professional makeover for the restaurant, which has humble origins in downtown Cincinnati.
With Quackenbush behind the grill and Ward doing the designing, the duo and their wives began selling their eclectic soups and grilled cheese sandwiches from a food tent on Cincinnati’s Fountain Square in 2009.
Tom + Chee’s rapid success led to the opening of its first brick and mortar location 364 days later on Court Street.
Quackenbush and Ward say they knew “Shark Tank” would raise T+C’s profile but weren’t prepared for the tidal wave of attention they received after their initial appearance.
“Foot traffic pick ups drastically when we appear on TV shows or the news. It’s really amazing how many new people come in to check out what we’re all about after a TV appearance,” said the store’s general manager, Adian Adidian.
The attention extends well beyond sales figures and bowls of soup and sandwiches, though.
In the past six months, there have been 9,000 inquiries from people interested in opening their own Tom + Chee locations, according to restaurant management.
“They’ve come from all 50 states, plus Canada, Ireland, Dubai – all over the world,” Ward said.
The demand for Tom + Chee's delectable treats is hot. But the restaurant's owners want to make sure their establishments don't lose the neighborhood feel that's endeared them to people across Greater Cincinnati and the country.
"We never wanted to be one big conglomerate, so our values are completely different. We want every Tom and Chee you walk into to feel like it's part of that neighborhood," said Quackenbush, who admits he and his business partner are just "small town" guys at heart.
Tom + Chee expects to open franchises in Lexington, Ky., Lansing, Mich., and Freehold, N.J., by the end of 2013. Nine additional franchises are planned to open in the first quarter of 2014, according to the eatery. They did not release details on those locations.
“We’re excited to be spreading Tom + Chee across the country,” Ward said.
“By the end of 2014 we’ll be opening a store a week,” Quackenbush continued. “It’s proof that hard work and good food can make your dreams come true.”
Tom + Chee currently operates three corporate restaurants in the Greater Cincinnati area -- the original site at 33 E. Court Street and 420 Walnut Street in downtown Cincinnati, and at Newport on the Levee next to the Aquarium. It also has three franchise stores in Louisville.
Quackenbush and Ward say they anticipate another flood of inquiries after this “Shark Tank” episode and have refined their application process.
Here’s how the process works:
After screening written applications, the duo invite prospective franchisees to Cincinnati for what they call “Discovery Days.” During those events they allow would-be Tom + Chee-ers to taste the food, visit the stores and discuss the franchise process.
“We’re really interested in meeting people who are excited about grilled cheese and chasing their own American dream. We feel like we’re building a family,” Ward said.