Kitchen Royalty spotlights 5 franchise chefs who rule
Based in San Francisco, Heidi Gibson’s American Grilled Cheese Kitchen has grilled up a national following that’s boosted by her popular cookbook. Photos by Kevin Tiell.
The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen
Cheese enthusiast goes pro
By Tom Kaiser
Heidi Gibson works with cheese the way another artist might manipulate paint, pencils or paper. Creamy chèvre, Tillamook cheddar and subtle Havarti are her implements, among so many others. Gibson’s mastery could take the form of her Piglet sandwich with gouda, caramelized apples, cured ham and rosemary butter or, for special events, Breakfast in Bed with coffee-rubbed cheddar, lavender, bacon and eggs between two rustic slices of artisan bread.
As the founder, concept chef and co-owner of The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen, Gibson hasn’t lost her passion for the savory, sweet, crunchy or piquant, laudable in a city roundly considered the toughest business climate in the country. Truly, if she and her husband, Nate Pollak, can make a go of this at home in San Francisco, they have a fighting chance of striking gooey gold somewhere else—and that’s the foundation upon which they’ve built a new sandwich franchise.
Being this cheesy isn’t easy. There’s little downtime when you’re a new mom, senior director of product management at GoDaddy, a recipe tester for America’s Test Kitchen, as well as a mentor in the small business community and a first-time franchisor with big dreams—but Gibson remains a happy juggler.
“We’re small, so me being in corporate land gives us some freedom,” she said of working three big jobs at once, including taking care of little Max who just discovered his love of fresh tomatoes after a family stop at the farmers market. “I was grateful for every single day of maternity leave, because I recognized how rare it is to get that. Also, now, at the restaurant I don’t have to do the not-fun stuff.”
Gibson’s happy place remains her home kitchen where she, Pollak and Max regularly welcome friends who come hungry to try new recipes under development and give honest feedback as she turns her culinary obsessions into profit centers.
Even with a full-time job in software, Heidi Gibson’s true passion is dreaming up new recipes.
“There’s what I’m obsessed with at home, which isn’t always what I’m obsessed with in the restaurant,” she said of the working soirees. “At home right now, I’m a sourdough nerd. I’m doing a lot of slow fermentation where you fold it gently every half hour as opposed to kneading it, so you let the gasses build up so you get this really airy, chewy bread.”
Somehow we veer off into the weeds on how sourdough starter can actually colonize the hands of professional bakers and stick with them between loaves, much like vinegar’s mother. Next, it’s onto other influences such as banh mi baguettes, Moroccan spices, pungent saffron or preserved lemons—covering anything and everything that’s on her mind, screen or plate in this tech and culinary mecca. With grilled cheese and biscuit cookbooks to her name and two thriving restaurants—not including the first franchise location in Fort Myers, Florida—Gibson has yet to exhaust her internal bandwidth. Oh, and she’s also a seven-time national grilled cheese championship winner.
Her enthusiasm isn’t a mask for the hard stuff, of which there is plenty. High rents are the norm as the Bay Area bursts at the seams. Minimum wage just went up again, labor has “been an emergency for like five years now” and, most importantly, their cashiers and cooks can hardly afford to live within the city, meaning lengthy, unpredictable commutes on public transit. That’s tough in a restaurant that can run with just four employees at a time.
“It’s not the rent on the restaurant that kills us, it’s the rent that our employees have to pay that kills us,” Gibson said. “Like, what am I going to charge for a grilled cheese for someone to afford rent in San Francisco?”
Ideas for cheesy new sandwiches often come from the chef’s at-home culinary obsessions.
Picking up the everyday slack means husband Nate covering shifts between calls with franchise advisors and tire-kickers interested in opening their own locations. Both better halves are also navigating the sea changes wrought by ghost kitchens and third-party delivery that has bubbled up to nearly a third of their sales with no end in sight.
Further down the line, Gibson dreams of reaching 50 locations—just 47 more to go—as the inflection point where life gets easier as they move beyond bootstrapping into a place where franchise infrastructure begins to take the lead. In this fantastical future with busywork off her plate, Gibson wants to keep giving back to the “little ecosystem” of small business owners she frequents and maybe, just maybe, dust off that business plan for a biscuit-based concept she wrote years ago.
“If we didn’t franchise, then it would be us doing this one store at a time and it would be really hard to get away,” she said. “Franchising, for us, seemed like the obvious solution, and it can get us into better labor markets like Phoenix and Houston.”
Culinary Q&A with Heidi Gibson
What’s your first food memory?
I taught myself to cook blueberry muffins from my mother’s cookbooks. I was 6 or 7 years old, quite small and a very motivated little kid.
What’s the last thing you cooked at home?
This is going to sound so cheffy. We live a block and a half from the largest farmers market in the East Bay. I did a little panko on sole, sous vide some fresh corn from the market and I made a salad with lettuce Nate grew in our front yard.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?
Marshmallows and white chocolate are my two drive-by guilty pleasure snacks. I’m a sucker for fluffy things.
If you could only eat or drink three things the rest of your life, what would they be?
Margarita, carnitas tacos and I didn’t even make it to No. 3. Something sweet at the end, like maybe a chocolate sundae.
Which ingredient do you especially wish wasn’t so expensive?
Cheese! Good cheese. Carmody cheese and Marieke gouda from Wisconsin. (Editor’s note: this list went on for quite a while.)
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