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Small Business Survivors: Melt Shop expands offerings while feeding essential workers and kids during pandemic

Photo courtesy of Melt Shop

Spencer Rubin, founder and CEO of Melt Shop, has wanted to be in the restaurant business since he was 8 years old. The Montclair, New Jersey native was raised enjoying great food in his own town and in New York City.

“Food is my life,” said Rubin. “I love food. The reason I love food is because of how I grew up going to these amazing restaurants in my hometown. I got more and more engaged and wanted to be in the industry.”

Rubin set a goal to open his first restaurant by the time he was 25 years old. He worked with an old boss of his and some past clients to help him get started in the industry. 

“The four of us collectively talked about doing a restaurant concept. I was the young guy, and the idea was I would build it and run and they would help me with mentorship and help me raise money when I needed it,” said Rubin. “Fast forward a little of time, and grilled cheese was the core concept that we thought had the most potential. I fell in love with the idea, I thought this was a product that people are super familiar with. Nobody really owns the space, I hadn’t really heard of a grilled cheese restaurant before.”

With the grilled cheese concept in mind, Rubin set to work to build his restaurant. He accomplished this goal and on his 25th birthday, Rubin opened the first Melt Shop location at 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue.

Since then, Melt Shop hit the ground running, and over the past ten years, the shop has opened 14 more locations throughout New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, some of which are traditional brick and mortar storefronts and the rest in mall food courts. In order to grow, Rubin says that Melt Shop had to expand its offerings, which now in addition to grilled cheese, the shop offerings macaroni and cheese, salads, crispy chicken sandwiches, tater tots and burgers.

Photo courtesy of Melt Shop

“We became a real fan favorite in the community. We had lines every day,” said Rubin. “A couple of years in, we opened up some more locations and we realized that in order for us to achieve a hard goal of becoming a much larger scale as a dynamic player, we needed to broaden our base a bit. We like to think of ourselves as now as a fast-casual all-American concept that has something for everybody. “

Like many businesses, Melt Shop was hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rubin first starting turning gears within the Melt Shop community to see what the employees wanted in terms of closures.

“I think what I was trying to figure out was, how do I balance health and safety of team with the livelihood of the team with future prospects of the brand?” said Rubin. So we made everything optional.”

Rubin and his staff sent surveys around to the stores to see how employees felt, and worked with the employees who didn’t feel comfortable working to make it work for them. Due to the unemployment system not working out well due to the number of Americans trying to apply for unemployment, many Melt Shop employees opted to continue working.

With the stores that could stay open, Rubin began to think about how they could give back to the community. Right off the bat, Melt Shop started offering free meals to kids who would otherwise get their meals from school. 

“Before schools closed, we started giving out free lunches to kids in need,” said Rubin. “We had distribution points in the city, if schools are closed and you can’t get free lunch there, why not use our kitchens and distribution network to get food to kids?”

When it started to sink in that the pandemic wasn’t going away anytime soon, Melt Shop started to expand its community reach and started to feed essential workers as well. They started the Melt It Forward initiative to hand out free meals to essential workers, and those who were essential workers could show their badge at an open location and get a free meal. Melt Shop also started to feed the National Guard out of its 26th Street location.

“We were giving out thousands of meals, they needed to be fed,” said Rubin. “Our goal was to give people food but also give them comfort. When things are really stressful, you want something that’s going to make you feel good. And so we felt like we were obligated to the community in that way.”

On the business side of things, deliveries picked up, but Rubin wanted to find a way to keep everything going. While many restaurants streamlined their menus, Melt Shop went in the opposite direction and added 30 new items to their offerings. Melt Shop also launched a virtual wing concept to help get some more traction.

“We’re still fighting through it, but all those different actions helped us gain a lot of ground,” said Rubin. “We’ve been on a steady increase since then, but it has not been easy.”

Rubin highly credits the employees for keeping the business moving during the pandemic.

“Our team has gone above and beyond to get us through this. We are super fortunate that we have the team that we do. It’s been intense,” said Rubin. “We did our best to keep team and guests protected. We banded together to fight through it, we are still fighting but has mellowed out, but we are not out of the woods yet.”

Despite the pandemic, Melt Shop recently celebrated 10 years in business.  Rubin hopes the Melt Shop can continue to grow and open new locations over time. But for now, the top priority is making sure that Melt Shop is the best possible employer it can be. 

“It’s more of a priority now more than ever due to the pandemic,” said Rubin. “It’s always been a focus, but this has just taken how we look at that to a new level. We’re taking care of our team and guests, and if we do that successfully it will allow us to grow in the future.”

Most importantly, Rubin wants to continue to experiment and create new products that Melt Shop customers will love.

“We want to keep creating and innovating to create great food,” said Rubin. “It’s something I love to do and I know people love to try. That’s part of the reason we are in this business.

For more information, visit meltshop.com.

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