visited with owners of a few local food establishments that opened during the pandemic or morphed the way they do business to accommodate change. The result is a series of stories featuring Tampa Bay foodie entrepreneurs who have survived and are thriving. Below is the second in a series.
Close your eyes for a moment and think back to the very best grilled cheese sandwich you've ever tasted. Now, kick it up 100 notches, and you may be close to envisioning Fo' Cheezy Twisted Meltz.
From Gordon Ramsay's "Hell's Kitchen" and multiple appearances on The Food Network to event chef at the famed Playboy Mansion and craft service chef on "Breaking Bad," celebrity chef Robert Hesse has been there, done that. He could've gone to New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, overseas, just about anywhere, to open a restaurant. But Hesse chose to return home to St. Pete to get his elevated melts concept off the ground.
After "retiring" from the Playboy Mansion and "Breaking Bad" had run its course, Hesse found himself at a crossroads. He had played around with grilled cheese-centric pop-ups in his spare time, and it was an instant sensation. It was at that point he knew he had something going. So, with $3,000 in his pocket and ideas in his head, Hesse got to work on his new endeavor doing up chef-driven, gourmet grilled cheese and "funky melts."
It wasn't long until Hesse's ideas became a reality -- in the form of a 30-foot food truck. The original aim was to open a full-service restaurant -- until COVID-19 rocked our world. But it worked out. It allowed Hesse to experiment with meshing together urban hip-hop and grilled cheese while gauging people's interest before opening up a full-service brick-and-mortar.
The Fo'Cheezy food truck got rolling last March, at a time when many businesses were shutting their doors. In the beginning, Hesse says they struggled to get by, bringing in around $200 a week. But instead of putting his tail between his legs and surrendering to defeat, he chose to push on by paying it forward.
Hesse quickly saw how the pandemic affected Tampa Bay families and the economy, and he wanted to do something about it.
"Gordon Ramsey once told me, 'If you feed the masses, you live among the elite. If you feed the elite, you live among the masses.' I want everyone to be able to experience my food. I'd rather leave a little money on the table and let everyone get a taste."
And, so, he fed the masses.
Every Friday, the Fo'Cheezy food truck hit the streets. They started by distributing free grilled cheese to those affected by the pandemic. "We went to neighborhoods like Charles Park and other low-income neighborhoods. The grilled cheese was probably the only meal for a lot of kids."
It was all out of his and business partner/Fo'Cheezy co-founder Craig Munroe's own pockets, but the pay it forward system paid off. "We saw a boom in business overnight," says Hesse. "It was like a light switch. We saw an influx of business and supporters. We went from doing $200 a week to $5,000 a day during COVID. It became 'the people's restaurant’."
Hesse says that, within four months, they had already paid for the food truck two times over, paid themselves back, and were helping people at the same time.
That prompted Hesse and Munroe to form the non-profit organization No Kid 86'd ("86" is a food term meaning temporarily unavailable). As part of the initiative, Fo'Cheezy donates 2 percent of gross sales to the charity, which serves troubled youth of the greater Tampa Bay area.
The brick-and-mortar Fo'Cheezy, which opened in July, was built entirely off cash flow profits from the food truck. "Where most people might be timid and scared to build during a pandemic, we figured, no risk it, no biscuit."
Hesse explained that he wanted to build the ultimate spot where he would like to spend 16 hours a day, where people could enjoy "dope" grilled cheese and listen to old hip-hop, and that's exactly what he did. Classic hip-hop music fills the space, and every inch of Fo'Cheezy, inside and out, is decked out graffiti-style by St. Pete muralists The Vitale Bros
The restaurant has been profitable since the day it opened. They're using those and the food truck's profits to build a second location in downtown St. Pete, which is set to open its doors later this month (in April 2021) at the now-closed former Five Guys, 111 3rd St. North.
Hesse calls his creations "Not Yo' Mama's, from street-to-table" melts. He brings home-cooked classics to life with each item in an elevated way using locally sourced, quality ingredients. The most popular items are the mac n' rib (sharp cheddar, BBQ pulled pork shoulder, smoked bacon, macaroni and cheese, crispy onion, honey drunk BBQ) and the Cluck Norris (Nashville hot chicken and gouda).
Fo'Cheezy also features melt drops, which are limited edition items. "They usually sell out within 24 hours, and we're talking 50-60 orders," Hesse says.
Fo'Cheezy goes beyond twisted melts into the dessert realm with out-of-this-world hand-spun shakes and over-the-top desserts.
"I keep my standard above everybody else's and never slack -- that's the Gordon Ramsay mentality, the Michelin star training," shares Hesse. "Whether I'm making a chateaubriand or a mac and rib, it's going to get the same level of care and quality."
Hesse says Fo'Cheezy wouldn't be where it is today without the support of the community. "You are only as good as the customer coming in the door. They write reviews; they post photos on social media, they watch our content on social.
"We are where we are and surviving because of the customers."
Fo'Cheezy is located at 6305 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach. Hours of operation are 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday. On Fridays and Saturdays, they're slinging the grilled cheese melts until 3 a.m. The Fo'Cheezy food truck can be found at locations throughout Tampa and St. Pete. To find out where they are, call (727) 498-3205. For more information, visit Fo'Cheezy online
First in the series: Food entrepreneur: Chef Ami prepares meals with purpose