Michael Inwald loves cheese. To be more specific, he loves grilled cheese sandwiches. The New York native left business school at Yale a few years ago to launch Cheeseboy, the nation’s first quick-service grilled cheese chain. On Monday, the 31-year-old entrepreneur opens his eighth store - he has four in Massachusetts - and plans to begin franchising this year to take grilled cheese across the country. Globe reporter Jenn Abelson recently spoke with the Cheeseboy.
When did you develop your love for grilled cheese?
When I was a kid, I was always putting cheese on everything. I would make grilled cheese throughout college and after college. For years and years, whenever friends and family came over, I’d offer them a grilled cheese, and they’d almost come to expect that.
What kind of start-up experience do you have?
I started a multimedia production company right after I graduated. I was really living the life of bootstrap entrepreneur, and I didn’t feel like I was making a big impact. So I applied to business school and thought maybe I can meet some investors, get a finance education, and maybe launch a grilled cheese chain.
Is grilled cheese what you pitched when you applied to become an MBA candidate at Yale?
I didn’t say I wanted to do grilled cheese. I had three other business ideas I was actively researching, but grilled cheese was the one from day one that I knew could be the big thing.
Over 2.2 billion grilled cheese sandwiches are made at home every year, and 55 percent of grilled cheese is eaten during lunch time. Two-point-two billion tells me that the rest of the country would eat it.
You began testing your idea at county fairs in the summer of 2009 across Connecticut. How did that work?
I put $20,000 toward county fairs. It was everything that was left in my bank account. I was able to afford three fairs. I had to build out tents, hire a team, source all the products, handle customer service. I was spending 100 hours a week just getting everything together. I saw this as my big opportunity.
Are county fairs good place to test products?
What I wanted to find out was whether our particular grilled cheese was unique. I spent half the time there handing out surveys, videotaping people talking honestly about what they thought. I asked if this grilled cheese was served in a mall or campus or airport would they buy it?
What did you do with the feedback you received?
I created a video at the end of the second fair. We got a tremendous positive response. I sent the videotape to one of investors that I had met at Yale. In October, they agreed to fund the first store.
So you left Yale for grilled cheese?
I took a leave of absence from Yale, and I’m still technically on leave.
Why did you choose Boston for your next flagship?
When I went to Boston to check out the site at South Station, I saw this was a city that clearly understands good food. And it’s small enough that you can start building a brand, and if you do it well, you have the best opportunity to grow.
How did you get the name?
Originally it was called Grilled Cheese to Go. We changed the name in the summer of 2010 prior to opening in South Station. We were investing a lot of money in the brand and knew we needed something short and sweet. One of my investors’ daughter’s friends was referring to me as Cheeseboy. So we threw that name into the market research and kids liked it and adults liked it.
So what makes your grilled cheese so special?
It’s premium grilled cheese but mainstream. We didn’t want it to be fancy or gourmet. But we did want it to be high quality and accessible to everyone.