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Ones to Watch | By Jody Shee

Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese
A gourmet grilled cheese sandwich from Chedd's.

Since Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese opened its doors in Denver, Colorado, in 2003, customers have flocked from near and far to the comfort food concept, a phenomenon that, early on, surprised owner Wendy Bruley. “We didn’t expect for it to take off as fast as it did,” Bruley says, recalling her astonishment at the long line that developed on their first day in business.

The idea for the concept came at the kitchen table one afternoon as Bruley and her ex-husband were eating grilled cheese sandwiches. He looked at his sandwich and announced, “I think we could sell these.” Exploring the idea, they emptied their savings and opened the first Chedd’s (named after Wisconsin cheddar heads).

Bruley has made grilled cheese sandwiches since the age of 13, when she started making them for her dad and siblings. Early on, she experimented with different types of cheese, bread, and vegetables. Now she’s the powerhouse behind the 1,000-square-foot Denver unit with seating for 26 and one franchised unit in Austin, Texas.

With an average check of $10 to $11, the menu is simple: There are 35 kinds of cheese (no sliced American), grilled on any of eight types of bread. On one side of the menu—made to look like a Wisconsin license plate—is a list of Chedd’s Gourmet Melts, which sell for $6.30. A half sandwich costs $3.75. The flip side of the menu gives the option for a custom grilled cheese sandwich for $4.95.

One of the most popular gourmet melts is the Hot Gobbler made with turkey, habanero jack cheese, banana pepper, jalapeño pepper, onion, and mayonnaise on white bread. Another popular order is the Yoga Teacher with turkey, provolone cheese, avocado, baby spinach, and Italian dressing on multigrain bread. All 21 gourmet melts have catchy names like Smokey Blues, Buff Hamster, Ain’t Pizza, French Kiss, and Meatless Horse.

For the custom sandwiches, guests choose their favorite cheese, a bread type, and any extras. Extras include a second cheese for 99 cents, meat for $1.25, up to four vegetables for 99 cents, and condiments or dressings.

To turn a sandwich into a meal, guests can add a drink and their choice of chips, cookie, or side salad for an extra $2.25. Other side items added to the menu were selected for their comfort appeal: tomato basil soup, macaroni and cheese, grilled bratwurst (and brat melt), and milk shakes.

But the star is the cheese selection, all of which hails from Wisconsin. The connection originally had more to do with family heritage and the fact that it was the cheese Bruley had the most experience with. But it turned out to be a stroke of genius and became a partnership of sorts with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, which sponsors ads for Chedd’s, assists with marketing and promotion, and provides Wisconsin cheese posters, maps, wooden crates, and faux wax cheese wheels as decorations.

Other product partners have also pitched in. Milwaukee-based Klements Sausage is the brat vendor of choice and provided the Denver and Austin units with steamers to prepare the brats. The soup crocks used to cook the tomato basil soup are compliments of Heinz. A local bakery makes daily deliveries of the fresh-baked breads—focaccia, multigrain, pumpernickel, sourdough, rye, marble rye, wheat, and white.

Bruley negotiates product pricing with the vendors and passes along the savings to her franchisee and plans to continue doing so as other franchisees come on board. “The vendors want to work with us,” she says. “Scratching each other’s backs is more American than stabbing each other.”

Bruley’s goal is to expand nationwide with 100 stores within 10 years. The next one is scheduled to open in South Dakota this fall or winter, and she says she has franchise applicants in Ohio, North Carolina, Nevada, and Texas. The initial investment to open a single-unit franchise ranges from $127,000 to $274,000 with a continuing service fee of 6 percent gross sales.

OWNER: Wendy Bruley

HQ: Denver, Colorado

YEAR STARTED: 2003

ANNUAL SALES: Undisclosed

TOTAL UNITS: 2

FRANCHISE UNITS: 1

WEB SITE: www.chedds.com

Bruley envisions Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese becoming a dining destination so she does not plan to locate units close together. “People drive 150 miles to come and eat a grilled cheese sandwich here,” she says.

Meanwhile, accolades accumulate for the brand. Denver Westword, an alternative weekly newspaper, gave it the Best Grilled Cheese Sandwich distinction in 2004 and 2005. Colorado Avid Golfer Magazine awarded it the 2004 Reader’s Choice Award. And City Search Denver, gave Chedd’s the Best Denver Comfort Food honor in 2006.

“The thing I love most about my job is that people are happy to come in and be here and eat here,” Bruley says. “Everyone is smiling and excited to be in my place.”

Wendy Bruley is no longer President of Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese. For any questions please contact info@chedds.com.

Chedd’s Gourmet Grilled Cheese