“Catering is 20 to 25 percent of the fast casual space — think Chipotle and Panera — but it’s a real challenge for us,” he said in an interview yesterday. “No one wants a soggy grilled cheese. No one.”
And so Kaplan, the former hardware executive with deep ties to Silicon Valley, called together his engineers and then built a new delivery contraption called the Smart Box. A delivery box equipped with an aluminum block, motors and fans to monitor both heat and humidity, the Smart Box is “like a sous-vide immersion circulator that uses air instead of water,” Kaplan said. It is meant to keep the toasted bread from becoming too soft.
Each costs about $200, patent pending, although Kaplan is not sure yet if he’ll sell them independently. But after doubling from 22 Melt locations to 44 in 2015, he considers the Smart Box crucial to his cheese melt firm’s expansion.
“Our customers want delivery,” Kaplan said. “It took us a little over a year [and] five or six engineers, software and hardware guys from Apple, Google, Cisco.”
The box is not their only new tech experiment for the company, which unveiled The Melt at the D9 conference in 2011 (here’s the video). The next generation of its Melt app, for example, will sense when a consumer is within a block of the restaurant and prepare your grilled cheese based on distance and speed.
“So when you walk in, your melt is ready,” Kaplan said. “In order for a fast casual chain to be successful in the future, it has to be very good at technology.” For instance, when you arrive at the store, the music in the sandwich shop might immediately change to something you recently liked on Facebook, into which your Melt app has hooked.
“Like the Cheers bar, you want to go where everybody knows your name,” he said. “This gives you that same homey experience.”