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Tech Over Taste Was No Recipe For Success At The Melt

The Melt’s business model has been a bit of a gooey mess over the past six years, its “Grilled Cheese Happiness” motto melting into grilled cheese sadness as the minimalist, tech-driven startup failed to gain traction.

The Melt started with some good ideas. Founder Jonathan Kaplan and home appliance company Electrolux had come up with a machine that could make “the perfect grilled cheese” in just 45 seconds.

The Melt had “that nostalgic thing” going on, serving simple comfort food: grilled cheese and soup, both made from natural ingredients and paired with Boylan soda rather than Pepsi or Coke. In 2011, the venture shouldn’t have failed. Perhaps the flaw was that its creators believed it couldn’t.

Diners found the perfect grilled cheese too perfect, lacking soul: the uncanny valley of casual dinners. It had no spatula marks, no dripping cheese. And it didn’t taste very good.

Instead of focusing on the food, The Melt was focused on the tech, and that was reflected in its mission statement to provide “better food for our kids, and jobs creation.” As Business Insider pointed out, that’s not a restaurant’s mission; that’s a tech company’s mission.

It turns out that a magic grilled cheese-maker, an online ordering system and pickup scanners, a NASA-engineered “Smart Box” that kept melted cheese gooey for up to an hour, an app-based geo-fencing system that kick-started food prep as customers got close to the restaurant, and even an in-store soundtrack that automatically personalized itself to guests’ musical preferences – all ahead of their time – were not what diners were looking for. They were looking for good food.

Kaplan’s plan to open 500 fast-casual outlets within five years stalled out at just 18 outlets. The Melt introduced and then dismantled a food truck fleet and a breakfast menu before finally relenting and adding meat to the dinner menu. The burgers grew business by more than a quarter overnight.

In September 2016, Ralph Bower replaced Kaplan as CEO, bringing with him more than 25 years of experience at outlets such as Domino’s Pizza and KFC.

The Melt has since overhauled its décor (from white subway tile and metal stools to minimalist furniture and bleached wood), introduced a rotating menu of seasonal specials, and crafted a brand-new mission statement that no longer sounds like the mission of a tech company, but of a restaurant.

“We consistently provide craveable grilled cheese and cheeseburgers handcrafted by friendly crew members using the best all-natural ingredients enabled by helpful technology and served in a warm, welcoming environment,” says the statement. Anyone else feeling hungry?

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