Behrens with waitresses Ashley Sullivan and Bea Bonanno
The grilled cheese sandwich: It may be buried on page five between the Greek salad and the onion rings, but you'll find it somewhere on any diner menu, guaranteed. That's where John Behrens spotted it, and it gave him the idea he'd been searching for.
In the late 1990s, Behrens, then a struggling film student, moved to the Lower East Side and into a ground floor space zoned for commercial use. Within a matter of days, his neighbors started asking what kind of business he was going to open. Having really just planned to live in the space, he suddenly found himself giving entrepreneurship serious thought.
Out scouting locations for a film one day, he popped into a diner for a quick meal. Scanning through 300 menu items, he spotted a grilled cheese sandwich for $5.75. "That's when I thought, 'Of course!'" Behrens says.
"Its placement on the menu, the font of it, everything just said this was what you ate when there was nothing else -- the last resort," he remembers. "My natural tendency is to improve on things, so something that needed so much improvement was the perfect opportunity."
And so he set out to transform the sandwich from its usual oily mound of flavorless bread and gloppy cheese into something both delicious and nutritious. "It's very substantial really," he says. "And if you use the right ingredients, it can be very healthy."
And so, Grilled Cheese NYC was born. Charging start-up costs to his Mastercard and Visa (with some financing provided by an early partner whom he later bought out), Behrens renovated the apartment, invested in a couple of computers, and outfitted the kitchen. And then he began to design sandwiches.
"I just went about making what I would want," he says. To Behrens, bread -- not cheese -- was the most important ingredient. And so he spent weeks checking out bakeries throughout the boroughs, settling finally on Long Island City's Bakery of New York. "Handmade, homemade every day, and fresh delivery -- it was hard to beat."
|Behrens makes sandwiches that he himself would like to eat
Keeping things simple, he decided to offer just three varieties on the menu: seven-grain, white, and baguette.
Simplicity, along with meltability, guided his cheese selection process as well. The menu includes six varieties: cheddar, jack, Swiss, provolone, mozzarella, and French yogurt. The French yogurt, he explains, keeps those looking for a no-cholesterol option coming back again and again.
With these staples, Behrens created a menu of specialty sandwiches ranging from the Classic (cheddar, jack, and provolone cheese with tomato) to the Turk 168 (jack cheese, turkey, golden pepper relish, tomato, spinach, and sautéed onions and garlic) to the Grilled Motsy (fresh mozzarella, sun-dried tomatoes, baby spinach, basil pesto, and vinaigrette).
Not to be outdone by the Café Europas of the world, Grilled Cheese NYC also gives patrons the opportunity to design their own sandwiches. Choose your bread, your cheese, and any of a number of toppings and spreads.
Soups, salads, smoothies, milk shakes, and desserts have also found their way into the mix. And don't miss the yummy sweet potato fries. Best of all, the most expensive item on the menu is $8, with many coming in at half that or less.
Behrens credits the success of the shop -- business has grown steadily since the doors opened in 2000 -- to the Lower East Side. "Without the neighborhood, without the location, there was no way I could ever have done this," he says, praising both the mix of small designers, art galleries, and boutiques that make up his neighbors and the absence of Starbucks and McDonalds. "I'm not saying anything against those places," Behrens adds quickly, "but it says something that they're not here. It's more homey."
Of course, the fact that Grilled Cheese NYC has been featured on two Food Network shows doesn't hurt either. "We saw a real uptick," he says, after a visit from chef Sara Moulton of "Sara's Secrets." The shop was mobbed an hour after the show aired.
Fortunately for patrons, most days bring a slightly smaller crowd, making it possible to find a seat at one of the handful of tables that fill the small dining room. Business continues to be mostly eat-in, Behrens says, but take-out orders have been on the rise lately.
He's happy having both as long as people enjoy the sandwiches wherever they eat them.
Grilled Cheese NYC
168 Ludlow Street