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Spencer Rubin has been thinking like an entrepreneur since he was six years old, when his dad would take him fishing and Spencer had the idea of selling the dishes they made with their catch. Now, at 26, the Montclair native not only is the founder and managing partner of Melt Shop grilled cheese restaurants, but Forbes magazine has certified him in its annual list of "the entrepreneurial, creative and intellectual best of their generation."
"In each of 15 categories, ranging from energy to Hollywood," Forbes assembles its annual list of "young disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs...impatient to change the world." Rubin was one of the 30 winners in the Food and Wine category.
"The Cornell graduate brought the first grilled cheese shop to Midtown Manhattan in 2011 and expanded to a larger location the following year," reads the magazine's citation. "The concept: affordable artisanal to-go sandwiches--all priced under $10. Be on the lookout for 20 more stores over the next few years."
The Food and Wine candidates (Rubin was nominated by a friend) were vetted by three judges--Danny Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group; Lee Schrager, founder of the South Beach Wine and Food Festival; and Randall Lane, the editor of Forbes--who picked the 30 winners.
“It was kind of a one-two punch, that just happened,” Rubin says. “It was a great honor, and very exciting.”
Rubin’s love of food started as soon as he was big enough to stand at the counter and cook with his mom, Rochelle. One of their first collaborations was grilled cheese sandwiches. “I could butter the bread, and it was something I could actually make when I was very young,” Rubin says. “It was one of my earliest memories.”
“Spencer was always, always into food,” says Rochelle, a recruiter for creative executives. “He had an intense sense of taste and smell and would try anything. For his fifth birthday he had a party at a cooking school, and for high school graduation he got a set of pots and pans.”
Rochelle and Stuart Rubin, a lawyer, encouraged their son's interests, but the youngster, whether playing junior hockey or cooking, always had drive. During high school, Rubin held cooking jobs at Raymond’s restaurant in Montclair and at a local assisted living complex. He contemplated culinary school but chose the Hotel School at Cornell as he became more interested in the business side of food.
His original plan was to make his mark in fine dining, but post-graduate work at a restaurant development firm changed his path. There he met people who would become his future business partners.
When they were brainstorming restaurant ideas, grilled cheese “just flew out,” Rubin says. “That’s it! There were a number of ideas on the table, but I was personally most fond of starting a grilled cheese place. I thought it [would be] marketable and appealing to New York City lunch folk.”
The first Melt Shop opened on Lexington Avenue in 2011, and six months later, the 26th Street Chelsea shop followed. He is now negotiating to lease a third space and has no intention of stopping there.
Will he bring Melt Shops to his home state? “I gotta get back there at some point,” he says.
His personal favorite sandwich these days is the truffle melt, a combination of Havarti, arugula, cracked black pepper and a drizzle of truffle oil, on toasted sourdough that comes, as do all his breads, from nearby Orwasher’s Bakery.
The top sellers are the buttermilk fried chicken sandwich with pepper jack cheese, creamy red cabbage slaw, and "special melt sauce," which Rubin describes as "a spicy and tangy homemade aioli, kind of like a combination of chipotle mayo and ranch dressing."
Also popular are ‘shop tots.’ a tater side dish that can be ordered with barbeque sauce, parsley pesto or truffle mayo. There are milkshakes and ice cream floats, Stumptown coffee and draft beer.
Sandwiches are built around all-time favorites like cheddar, blue, gruyere, gouda and brie, and enhanced by ingredients like roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, maple-glazed bacon and pickled jalapenos. A big part of the business is take-out.
“We are doing something unique, but familiar at the same time,” Rubin says. “We’re taking something that is a simple staple in everyone’s household and turning it into something fantastic."
SUZANNE ZIMMER LOWERY is a food writer, pastry chef and culinary instructor at a number of New Jersey cooking schools. Find out more about her at suzannelowery.com.