Being from Cleveland, it’s kind of hard for me these days to not think of Melt Bar & Grilled when someone mentions the words “grilled cheese” in a sentence. Anyone who has had the privilege to devour one of the many gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches can probably agree with me – There is just something about a gigantic sandwich of comfort that is ever so addicting (oh, and the fries are pretty damn good too).
Matt Fish, proprietor/founder/pro-Clevelander/friend to all, is the man behind the grill(s) at Melt Bar and Grilled. It was he who took an idea and made it in to so much more than a place to grab a sandwich and a beer. He took a simple childhood favorite and turned it into a guilted-gourmet delight of stomach-bursting proportions.
In only four years, Fish now has two locations that have received an abundance of local attention as well as national. Wait times for a table alone reach upwards to two hours on the weekends meaning only one thing: Melt is kind of a big deal.
Recently I had the chance to catch up with Fish. The man is such a busy man it pretty much took two weather changes for this interview to finish, but in my opinion it was well worth it. Read on to get to know the man who is responsible for raising cholesterol to many Cleveland-ites, one sandwich at a time…
Kindly introduce yourself to the folk that have not had the privilege of meeting you yet.
Hello everyone. My name is Matt Fish and I am the owner of Melt Bar and Grilled in Lakewood and Cleveland Heights, Ohio.
What was life like for Matt Fish before Melt Bar & Grilled existed?
Definitely a little less crazy. I have always been a busy person so I was ready for the challenge of restaurant ownership. Life before Melt was a bit more relaxed though. I did more things that gave me personal enjoyment without having to worry about the restaurant all the time. The one thing that I did before Melt and I miss the most was play music. I have been playing in bands as a drummer since 1989 and I had to give that up to open Melt. Music and food have always been my passion but music has always been first. I will hopefully have time to get back into it sometime in the future.
How did the idea of gourmet grilled cheese come about?
There was no real epiphany or voice from above that gave me a vision. It was really just an innocent idea that I had. I wanted to open a restaurant that completely different than anything in the city at the time. Grilled cheese was always a big part of my life and I had always dabbled in making unique grilled type sandwiches with tons of great cheese. Bread and cheese have always been two of my favorite foods on earth. My last meal on earth will hopefully include some great artesian bread a some really sharp cheese.
How big was the original menu when you first opened about 3 years ago?
We have actually been officially open for 4 years now. Our anniversary will be on September 22nd. The menu when we opened is only a little smaller than the one at Melt today. My goal when opening was to offer 30 different gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and over 100 different beers.
Did you think Melt was going to take off like it did?
Hell No! not even my a long shot. I had no idea that the restaurant would be as popular as it has become. I thought I was opening a small little bar that served great beer and also had this really silly and unique gourmet grilled cheese menu. Right after the first opening weekend I realized that I had something pretty special.
Those sandwiches are not exactly health friendly. How is it that you are still so slim?
I actually eat Melt food at least 5 days a week. I have always had a pretty high metabolism rate but I fear that it is slowing down now as I approach 40! I still work at least 12 hours a day and I try to find time to work out a few times a week. I find it to be a great stress relief for me.
Do you have a favorite sandwich? I am a huge fan of the Big Popper and loved the last couple sandwiches of the month including the Soul Vegetarian and the Guitar Gyro.
I think my favorite sandwich on the menu right now is The Godfather. I am a freak for Italian food and that sandwich is really awesome. It combines all the elements of food that I really love. Great bread, pasta, sauce and cheese. It is so huge though that I can only eat one about once a month.
When did the whole sandwich of the month idea start?
I think the sandwich of the month started sometime during our first full year of operation. It was something that I wanted to do from the beginning but I realized that I was just too busy to pull it off at the very beginning. I worked open to close, 7 days a week for the first 2 years of the restaurant so finding time to create a special was difficult, but I eventually managed. I think the very first special was in July of 2007 and it was the Firecracker Chicken.
Has Melt always catered to vegetarians and vegans?
Being very vegetarian and vegan friendly has always been part of the Melt concept from the beginning. We are actually becoming more vegan friendly than ever. I make it a point to try to create a vegan version of every special that we offer. The vegan version of the Gyro Melt was incredible!
Who’s brilliant idea was it to put the menu on a vinyl album cover?
That was an idea that I came up with right before opening in 2006. I was looking for a very unique way to present the menu. All the ideas that I had were basically boring and over used. My father’s girl friend at the time (now his wife) mentioned that she had been to a restaurant that somehow used records to present the menu’s. That was all the information that I needed to start the ball rolling. I was trying to figure out how to do it the very next day. I actually raped my own record collection for the first two generations of the Melt menu’s. Michael Jackson’s Thriller was the first menu that I made!
Earlier this year, you opened a new location in Cleveland Hts. How exciting was it for you to finally expand your baby to share it with the other half of Cleveland?
It was a complete thrill. Like I mentioned earlier I never intended for Melt to be popular at all. For me to have the opportunity to open a second location in Cleveland in less than 4 years from opening the original is just a dream come true. I feel very privileged to be able to be open on either side of town in two very awesome communities.
You seem like a very hands on person at Melt. In fact when I see you most of the time you are in the kitchen. How tough is it to operate two grills now? I know your staff is amazing and all but I was just curious if you wish you could be on location at both spots all the time.
I definitely wish I could clone myself and be at both locations at the same time. Maybe make 3 of me and the third clone could be sleeping. It is very difficult running 2 restaurants sometimes but I have a fantastic staff and they really keep both places going very well.
Do you ever have a day off? What do you when you’re not working?
Days off for me are very rare. I am such a busy person and workaholic that I hardly ever stop. In fact I am answering these interview questions late on a Friday night instead of going home to relax and recharge for tomorrow. The only days off I have taken recently has been to travel to a wedding for a weekend. I try to take a few hours a week for myself to take care of personal things.
Can you tell me about some of the bands you used to be in?
The first real band that I was in was called Whatever… We were a punk band from Parma that released 2 full length records. The second was on Dr. Strange Records from Alto Loma, CA. Dr. Strange was one of the biggest independent punk labels in the mid 90’s. The last more popular band that I was in was The Chargers Street Gang from Cleveland. We were a garage-punk band that released 2 records on Get Hip! Records from Pittsburgh, PA. Get Hip! is still one of the major independent players in underground garage rock. I loved my time playing in recording and touring rock bands. Sometime I wish I could give it all up and go back to that free lifestyle.
Any special projects going on these days as far as bands go?
Nothing right now, simply not enough time. Last year The Chargers got back together to play the annual x-mas show at the Grog Shop. We practiced once a week for 4 months before the show. It was great fun and I really miss playing and hanging out with those guys. They are truly my best friends on earth.
How did it feel the first time you saw yourself on The Food Network or The Travel Channel?
It was quite odd. I really did not know what to expect so I hoped that I did not make a complete ass out of myself. I was very happy with the way both shows came out. I happen across the reruns every now and then on late night cable and it still a bit weird.
Who was cooler, Guy Fieri or Adam Richman?
That is like choosing between Gene and Paul or Ian and Guy or Steven and Joe or Mick or Keith. They are both pretty cool in their own right. Both pretty different but both heading for the same common goal. Who would I rather do another shoot with? Probably Guy.
As many of my friends and readers know, I was at that Man Vs. Food taping. Was that not the longest day ever? Did you think he was going to be able to kill the Melt Challenge?
It was an extremely long day but actually not as long as the DDD (Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives) shoot. Plus the DDD shoot was 2 killer days in a row! I had a really good feeling that he was going to kill the challenge. I watch his show pretty often and I have seen Adam destroy much more food. Not that much cheese though – that was certainly a first!
I really want to give the Melt Challenge an attempt- one day. How many people fail it? Have more people been ordering it since the premier of the episode?
The challenge has become very popular since the airing of the MVF episode. We probably serve at least 2 challenges a day in either restaurant. There is still about an 80% failure rate for the challenge. It is a lot more food that you think.
Has business increased because of it?
Business has definitely increased because of the MVF episode and also from the DDD episode. It really exposed us to people that may have never heard of Melt otherwise. We saw a lot of out of town travelers in Melt over the summer because of the shows.
What is the furthest someone has traveled to try Melt?
We see travelers coming into Melt from all over the country every week. The furthest I know about was a couple from Green Bay that just came to Cleveland to try Melt. I know that there are farther travelers but I am not sure exactly from where.
Back to the Cleveland Hts. location. How many other places did you look at before you chose Cedar and South Taylor?
Cleveland Heights was my first choice for the second Melt location. I knew if I really wanted to cement myself in the Cleveland restaurant scene I needed an east side location. Cleveland Heights was the logical location for the second Melt. Very similar city to Lakewood with a very diverse demographic and a very solid hometown feel.
That place used to be the Rhythm Room and a Peabody’s at one time. Had you ever attended a show there?
Yes, I actually attended a few shows there back in the early and mid 90’s. I really don’t remember much except the stage being in the basement. The huge hole in the floor is really all most people remember from The Rhythm Room.
How difficult was it to cover up that huge hole?
It wasn’t really difficult but it was a bit time consuming. Our walk-in coolers now occupy a majority of the basement area. We needed to actually build the coolers first and then fill in the hole second. Looking at the room now it is hard to believe that there was a 20×25 ft hole in the floor.
I need to comment on your staff. They are all wonderful and very personable people at both locations and appear more friends than coworkers. I love how Melt is not full of skinny fake model looking folk which is such a relief, leave that for the W. 6th district. The idea that they are all different one way or another from appearance to attitude is also a nice touch. Is this something you look at when hiring someone?
We actually look at personality first and work history second. I really want the entire staff to be filled with very interesting individuals with a strong personality. You can teach and train most people to do what you need them to do but you can’t teach someone to have an outgoing personality or a strong work ethic.
Was it your idea to have mostly retro movies playing and a constant stream of good music?
Yes. I believe that the atmosphere of the restaurant needs to be as interesting and colorful as the food and staff. I wanted to visually overload guests with fun things to look at and listen to. Melt is all about comfort and nostalgia.
Did you think that many people would actually get a variation of the Melt logo tattooed on them for life?
I never dreamed that the tattoo promotion would grow as fast and large as it has. I originally thought that maybe 20 people would do it and then it would fall off. We are up to over 160 family members so far in just over a year since the promotion begun. I really think that is incredible! The idea came from my favorite band Rocked From The Crypt. They have a rocket logo that they began suggesting their fans get tattooed to get into shows for free. It has grown into a world-wide tattooed fan base with hundreds and hundreds of tattoos. They created a family around the tattooed fans. I always loved that idea and I actually have a RFTC tattoo that I got many years ago. I wanted to capture the same family idea for Melt so I launched the Melt tattoo promotion in Sept 2009.
Has the question “If I get 2 Melt tattoos can I get 50% off” been asked yet?
Oh yes! We hear it quite often. No matter how many Melt tattoos you get, you still only receive the 25% off. I will however consider a larger discount for a full Melt body suit.
So do you have one (Melt tattoo)?
A very common question asked to me and the answer is no. In the tattoo world getting the name of your parents, significant other etc… is bad luck. I choose to not get a Melt tattoo for that very reason. I do not want to welcome any bad luck onto Melt.
This might be too early to ask but any expectancy on adding a 3rd Melt anytime soon? Maybe Akron?
The plans for a 3rd Melt location are already in the works. I am searching the city right now for a location. I plan to stay in the Cleveland area with the 3rd location and then hopefully branch out farther to cities such as Akron. Keep your fingers crossed!
If someone has never been tried Melt before how would you describe it to them?
It is like reliving all your favorite childhood memories again… Only better! The ultimate comfort food fantasy land where all your grilled cheese dreams become a reality!
For more information about Melt Bar & Grilled, head on over to their website and see what you have been missing out on!