Time is not kind to grilled cheese sandwiches; there's a (very) slim window once they've left the skillet before they turn into a congealed bummer. Which makes home delivery all but impossible. But the SmartBox, a highly engineered container, promises to get these fickle sandos to your door with minimum rubberization. We tried it. It works. What kind of sorcery is this?
The SmartBox was developed by an internal tech and engineering crew at The Melt, a chain of dedicated grilled cheeseries in California with a Silicon-Valley-style pedigree; it was founded by the founder of Flip video and a former head of retail operations at Apple. Their goal was simple: cater grilled cheese sandwiches that tasted as good as they would in the restaurant. The quest to turn that into a reality has been anything but. While the sandwiches are, in their purest form, a straightforward combo of bread, butter, and cheese, the SmartBox is incredibly—almost comically—complex. The Melt is not kidding around when it comes to its specialty dish.
VP of Operations Greg Hernandez told me that a grilled cheese has seven minutes before it loses its oomph. "Anything below excellent is considered deterioration," he told me. "To test this, we looked at the ooey-gooeyness of the cheese; I know that sounds corny, but it can't be getting solid. We looked at the mouthfeel; the bread has to be crispy but can't be hard like a crouton. We looked at the moisture, because once it gets soggy you lose that crunch. It's a combo of all these things."
The Melt started out researching existing options in the hospitality industry, evaluating the heating and holding equipment from various suppliers. Some were hard metal or plastic; some were soft like insulated pizza bags. The one thing they all had in common is that none of them worked as well as they needed. Was it a solvable problem? Yes. But it was going to be up to the Tiger Team, as they were dubbed, starting from scratch.
"The first SmartBox was a cardboard box with a hairdryer inside and a hole cut into it," Hernandez says. It turns out this jimmy-rigged attempt wasn't quite ideal—possibly because it sounds like something a high-school stoner would try on a whim when his parents were out of town—but they were on the right track. The hot air flow concept was critical, as was the hole in the box to keep the steam from condensing, but this was obviously not a practical, scalable solution to the problem. Plus, they wanted to know what was going on inside without having to physically or visually check, which would require more than a store-bought hairdresser's tool and frisbee-like za box to achieve.
Over the course of the next few months, SmartBox gradually evolved. They did trials on the streets of SF, running around with the in-progress prototypes on handtrucks, and offered (lucky) pals early tastes. Now it's in its fourth incarnation—an impressive construction that looks like a massive cooler but acts like a mini-laboratory.
The structure is made of insulated, reinforced plastic with an impenetrable seal around the door. The chamber acts like a custom convection oven, where a micro-controller measures the three key factors of humidity, temperature, and airflow. Fans and heaters turn on and off based on signals from those sensors, making sure there aren't any particularly hot or cool spots. An aluminum heat mat on the bottom keeps things toasty when en route.
Apart from plugging the SmartBox in in the morning, the delivery person doesn't have to do monitor or keep tabs on a damn thing; everything is automated. Once it's unplugged, a rechargeable 9-volt battery keeps things up and running.
Even the packaging was completely redesigned to suit this advanced system. The ridged bottom surface ensures that nothing lays flat—a surefire recipe for sog—while holes on the top ensure that moisture won't condense inside. Plus, it's all made from a compostable sugarcane material (not edible, though, so don't try).
I spoke to Hernandez before I had a chance to try this out, and despite the impressive big talk I was skeptical. But The Melt offered to send a platter to my studio, so I invited fellow Bay Area Giz staffers Sarah and Andy over for an afternoon of gluttony, in the name of first-person reportage.
It's 2.1 miles from the Howard Street location to my apartment in the Mission. That's a nine minute drive with no traffic, according to Google Maps, well over the recommended lifespan of a grilled cheese. When the shipment came, I wasn't sure what to expect. First, I was surprised at how large the SmartBox contraption was. Granted, I don't often order a generous meal for three to my door, but still—this thing is big (and even has a cooler-like top part for salads, cookies, and the rest). I didn't catch sight of any suspiciously large vehicles parked outside, so I'm guessing it fits in a standard van.
I snapped some photos on the street and wondered whether it was nuts to carry the whole thing up the flour flights of stairs to my place. (It was.) The two very kind, very enthusiastic gentlemen unloaded the bounty in the foyer and helped me carry the meal—which included salad (still sitting untouched in my fridge...), themed mini-croutons with a thin layer of cheese in the middle, and chocolate chip cookies—up, and up, and up. Spirits were high. The anticipation was palpable. For a moment we stared in wonder at the carb-fest in front of us—but not for long. We had work to do.
I sliced into a selection of the sandwiches, starting with The Classic: Aged cheddar on artisan white. The bread was crispy. The bread was crispy? The bread was crispy! The cheese wasn't quite as tongue-scaldingly hot as it would have been had we just made these ourselves, but it was enjoyably warm. There was a light dusting of salt (and perhaps some spices?) on the top that was a delightful touch. These tasted good.
There were a selection of six different styles, five of which—everything but The Classic—were far more ambitious than anything I have attempted, or likely will attempt, on my own (not surprising, perhaps, considering James Beard award winning chef Michael Mina was one of the founders). From The Bird's fontina, grilled chicken, baby spinach, and Caesar on sourdough to The Shorty's pepperjack, provolone, short-rib, and jalapeño, these were certifiably nuts. What trumped them all was the Mac Daddy with aged cheddar, smoked bacon, and goddamn macaroni-and-cheese inside. Ugh. Good ugh, but ugh.
The good thing about a grilled cheese bonanza is the novelty; it's not something I eat every day, which made it feel fun—decidedly more fun than if I was just frying something up for myself. (Although it could be relevant that I hate to cook.) The bad thing about a grilled cheese bonanza is at some point, there's only so much you can excitedly cram into your mouthhole before you start slowing down and feeling more than a little bit gross. That being said, I sampled every single one, and some more than a few times.
The SmartBox is launching for San Francisco deliveries this week and will extend its territory to southern California in the fall, but you're going to have to go big if you'd like to try it out. Minimum orders for delivery are $50. Sandwiches run between $5 and $7. And while there's other things on the menu, including salads (you won't make friends with those) and soups, it seems with the sheer magnitude of comfort food coming your way, this would be a special occasion treat or serious group effort to make it worthwhile. That being said, I had a couple halves left over that I slapped in a hot pan the next day and by golly they were delicious—so there's that.
The SmartBox is a win for The Melt, and eventually, humanity. It began as an experiment for grilled cheese and grilled cheese alone, but the team has applied for a patent and could see marketing the tech to restaurants and hospitality services all over the place; the ultimate gift for lazy homebodies—"delivery whores," as one Giz staffer put it—who regularly order in but are often served up sub-par meals because the tech to keep the food on-point just isn't there. They've secretly tested burgers, fries, and pizza with solid results. In the meantime—Viva le cheese!