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Tom + Chee land $600K investment and national exposure on ABC’s "Shark Tank"

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photo by Melissa Chipman

Give a good idea a national platform, and big things will happen.

Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush, founders and owners of the Cincinnati-based Tom + Chee grilled cheese and tomato soup restaurants, found that out last week.

On an episode that aired last Friday, they pitched a business expansion plan on ABC’s television show “Shark Tank” and came away winners.

“Sharks” Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran each pledged to invest $300K in the company in exchange for 15 percent of the business– so Tom + Chee walked away with $600K for 30 percent. Cuban and Corcoran also requested franchise rights for Texas and New York, respectively.

But more than just the money, Ward and Quackenbush are cashing in on the national exposure. Since Friday, they’ve received more than 2500 phone calls and emails from people around the country looking for information about buying a franchise.

Ward and Quackenbush founded Tom + Chee by emptying their bank accounts and setting up a food tent by the  Fountain Square ice skating rink in Cincinnati in 2008. Since then they’ve opened two downtown Cincy locations and one in the Newport on the Levee entertainment complex in Northern Kentucky.

Eighteen months ago, Louisvillians Rich and Natalie Tinsley and their three kids were in Cincinnati for New Year’s Eve. They had dinner reservations for 11 p.m. to ring in the new year, but shortly into the night they realized their stomachs couldn’t hold out for their late night dinner plans.

That’s when they came across the Tom + Chee on Court Street. “We fell in love,” says Rich Tinsley. “And spent about $50 in grilled cheeses tasting everything on the menu.”

Tinsley and his wife knew that they’d found their next business venture. It was a clean, simple sandwich shop, says Tinsley. At the right price point. And they could get in on the ground floor.

Were Ward and Quackenbush ready to franchise? “No,” says Tinsley. “But they were excited.” On that night Tinsley got Ward’s phone number. He called on the first business day of 2012. It took almost a year, and for a while they operated on a “napkin agreement,” but the first Louisville location of Tom + Chee opened on May 23, 2012.

Tinsley followed up the 1,800-square-foot Bardstown Road store by opening a 2,500-square-foot location by the University of Louisville. A Saint Matthews location will be opening up in July, and a fourth store is on the horizon.

The plan was always to open four stores in two years.

Tinsley’s businesses are benefitting from the “Shark Tank” bump as well. He’s receiving ten calls and emails a day enquiring about franchise opportunities. And both locations in Louisville saw business increase by a third over the weekend. He and his wife have first right of refusal for franchise opportunities in Tennessee, the Carolinas, the rest of Kentucky, St. Louis and Southern Indiana.

The episode may have aired last Friday, but it was recorded close to a year ago and Ward and Quackenbush are still in the “due diligence” phase of finalizing Cuban and Corcoran’s deal.

Tinsley’s day job is as chief development officer for Signature Health Care. His wife, Natalie, is a consultant for the Masonic Homes. So, James Tyler, formerly of Joe Davola’s sandwich shop, runs the day-to-day operations here in Louisville. There are full-time general managers for each of the stores. Staffing, Tinsley says, remains the business’s biggest challenge.

As we enter the Memorial Day weekend and the beginnings of the dog days of summer, it’s interesting to note that historically summer months have been the best months for Tom + Chee. Grilled cheese and tomato soup sound like great comfort food for a chilly day, but January, February and March have been the restaurants’ worst months.

Go figure.

 

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