Tom + Chee appeals to Tri-State taste buds in effort to build national brand

CINCINNATI - The Tri-State is well known for many things: Chili, baseball, and now: grilled cheese.

Tom + Chee has been bringing comfort food to the Tri-State for several years with its grilled cheese, tomato soups and donuts. The restaurant reached a much larger audience Friday night when it was featured on ABC's "Shark Tank" Friday night. 

Co-founders Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush received a deal from the "Sharks" to help develop their restaurant into a national chain.

The budding restaurateurs received an offer of $600,000 in exchange for 30 percent of the company from Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran, who asked for a second sample of the grilled cheese donuts for which Tom + Chee has become known.

Ward and Quackenbush only wanted to surrender 5 percent of their business but ended up accepting the offer.

The national TV appearances and local successes highlight how far the restaurant -- and the men behind it -- have come since the idea for the concept behind Tom + Chee was developed six years ago.

It all started with a backyard chat between two friends and their idea to bring their favorite treats to the Tri-State, said Quackenbush.

"It's easy, very executable. Something we can do quickly and something that everybody's going to have an emotional attachment to," Quackenbush said. "Food is emotion and being able to touch those heartstrings makes people just connect with the brand very, very quickly."

Quackenbush, alongside Ward, put the idea into motion when they literally put their money where their mouth was. The pair, who hadn't formed a business plan, set up a tent in Fountain Square in December 2009 — emptying their bank accounts in the process.

"We literally did empty our bank accounts to set up that tent. In a situation where your rent is not due until the 5th, so you've got five days to make rent money," said Ward, who added that he had been warned about setting up shop in Fountain Square where many before them had failed.

The gamble paid off and more than three years later they have three locations locally, two more in Louisville and another store set to open. The restaurant gained national recognition when they appeared on the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food Nation" and "Amazing Eats." On Friday, the restaurant was part of ABC's hit show "Shark Tank."

"Just the opportunity to be part of it and talk about Tom + Chee and have million of viewers being able to hear about Tom + Chee is priceless to us," Quackenbush said.

To watch the "Man v Food" featuring Tom + Chee, click on the video player below. (Note to mobile and tablet users: Open the story in a browser to watch the video.)

The entrepreneurs said they are hoping the exposure means more visitors and more satisfied customers.

"We started this on a whim, you know. I've been a chef for a long time, [Ward]'s been an art director. We never really ran a business," Quackenbush said.

Ward said he could have never predicted the concept's success.

"I don't think we could have predicted what all has happened," he said with a laugh. "I think if we would have, people would have through that we were just insane. ‘We're going to sell grilled cheese and in a couple of years we're going to have, like, all these stores and we're going to be on a couple of TV shows and it'll be cool.'"

To see the restaurant's full menu, pricing information and locations, go to http://www.tomandchee.com/ .

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