Last June, Flip founder Jonathan Kaplan surprised the tech world by announcing he was launching a grilled cheese company. But Kaplan’s venture, called The Melt, wouldn’t be an amateur, hotdog-stand operation. No, he’d do it with Silicon Valley flair: by hiring Michelin Star-quality chefs, James Beard award-winning designers, and workflow engineers; building a board of directors that includes former Apple retail head Ron Johnson; and raising millions of dollars in funding from Sequoia Capital.
Now Kaplan is taking his fast-casual restaurant concept one step further: the mobile market. Today, the Melt announced it’s going after the food truck industry by rolling out a fleet of retrofitted yellow school buses. The mobile eateries will set up shop throughout cities and possibly suburbs, allowing the company to stake out popular locations and reach new customers. Over the next five years, The Melt will introduce more than 100 buses to the market. Says Paul Coletta, The Melt’s chief marketing officer, "You are going to see us go places that no food truck has ever gone before."
The Melt’s buses will come equipped with modern, 200-square-foot kitchens that will offer the entire menu from its brick-and-mortar locations—soups, grilled cheese sandwiches, and breakfast options. Customers will have the ability to order online or via smartphone device, enabling them to avoid the hassle of long lines. The Melt’s trucks will rotate from permanent "bus stops" during the day on a schedule which Coletta believes will give customers a sense of consistency. "We’re not going to be chasing customers like traditional food trucks do," he says. "And it’s not the traditional food truck model where you have to chase the bus depending on what their social media message of the day is."
Coletta, who acknowledges the company is taking a "non-traditional distribution strategy," says The Melt has been purchasing old yellow school buses, a wink at the nostalgia associated with enjoying grilled cheese and tomato soup as children, and retrofitting them with The Melt’s eco-friendly branding and technology. The Melt’s buses will run on biodiesel fuel, and all of the company’s branded packaging will be compostable. Additionally, The Melt will only offer all-natural foods: "Driver carries no Velveeta," the side of one bus reads. (Customers also have the option to round up purchases to the nearest dollar, and donate the funds to partner Feel Good, the grilled cheese non-profit that aims to combat world hunger.)
Speaking to Coletta and Kaplan is like talking to the stoners who turned their late-night pipe dream into retail reality—a corporate personification of the munchies. These two are very serious about the grilled-cheese industry. When asked about competitors in the food truck space, for example, Coletta says, "I can’t speak for the industry trend." He boasts that "the convergence of four-wall retail with mobile food trucks is the future," and that "every piece of equipment is vital" to The Melt’s operation. Even when I ask him what locations The Melt might pursue, Coletta answers, "Look, 100 buses, 5 years, I wouldn’t say we’re not going to go anywhere."
The reason is clear: The Melt isn’t just some rinky-dink food truck startup. As Kaplan told me last year, "We’re trying to build a real business here. I want to take this company public, and I want to make my investors tons of money."
In keeping with The Melt’s left-field approach to retail, the company has come up with a wild idea to market the new strategy. This weekend, in McCovey Cove, the area of the San Francisco Bay outside AT&T Park, The Melt is "going to be lifting the first bus, SF1, onto a barge; floating it to the middle of the cove; and serving a couple hundred kayakers around the barge during the Giants-Dodgers game," Coletta says. "It’s going to be quite the spectacle."
The Melt’s mobile eateries will roll out first in the Bay Area, where the company has already established a slew of storefront locations. The company will announce a second bus market later this year.