Having broken new ground in the Stamford food truck business as the first upscale mobile vendor, Melt Mobile, a gourmet grilled cheese company, is again a pioneer in the local industry as the first food truck in the city to offer franchising opportunities.
“Six months into the first year, I knew I wanted to franchise because I knew that we had something very special and it was very different,” said Darlene Andersen, co-owner of the 4-year-old business.
A profitable venture since its first year, the business brought in $50,000 in revenue in May, she said.
Andersen and her longtime friend Diana Hall, both Stamford residents, launched the business in March 2012 after realizing the combination of Andersen’s business acumen and Hall’s culinary prowess could be a recipe for success.
Andersen worked in the restaurant industry for several years before switching careers to the recruiting industry, where she worked for five years before starting her own recruiting firm, Andersen Advantage, which she later sold.
A graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, Hall brought extensive restaurant industry experience to the venture. That culinary background has helped inspire the rotating selection of Melt sandwiches, from homemade pulled pork and brisket grilled cheese sandwiches to Hall’s meatball grilled cheese sandwiches featuring her Sicilian grandmother’s recipe.
Hall spent much of her working life in Stamford restaurants owned by her father, Anthony Zezima. Zezima formerly owned The 19th Hole and The Fairway at Sterling restaurants and was a co-owner of Bennett’s Steak and Fish House, all of which are now either closed or operating under new ownership or names.
The partners started the business with a $60,000 equity line of credit that Andersen took out, with which they invested $10,000 in a used paddy wagon from the Westchester County Police Department. Their startup venture got a big boost when Hall and Andersen were selected by the Food Network to appear on a program featuring celebrity chef Bobby Flay, who joined the two for their opening day in 2012.
Despite brisk business and Flay’s brief mentorship, the road to success hasn’t been easy, said Andersen. Through business mishaps and learning on the go, the partners said a mutual respect built on their long friendship has allowed them to persevere.
Future Melt Mobile franchise owners “don’t need to worry, we have gotten all the kinks out,” Andersen said. “We have blown engines and gone through different grills, blown our eyelashes off, broken a foot; we have figured out the hard way what works and what doesn’t.”
It has worked well enough for the two women, who drove into an industry dominated by men, to have Melt Mobile three times voted the number-one food truck in Connecticut in the annual Best of the Gold Coast survey.
“It felt good when a lot of then men with food trucks were asking me and Darlene for advice,” said Hall. “I always have a bunch of guys who are getting involved in the food truck business calling and asking me questions.”
“We started it,” Andersen said of Stamford’s now well-established food truck scene. “Everybody saw us and said if these girls can do it why can’t we? I was raised by a father who was very pro-women and taught me that women can do anything a man can do. You just have to always work hard, be articulate and not let your emotions take over, and I have always believed in that.”
Despite their popularity with the curbside lunch crowd, the most profitable side of their business has not come from foot traffic in Stamford.
“Instead of becoming a mobile vending truck, we became a mobile catering company,” said Andersen. “We didn’t expect this to happen.”
The catering business has been a key to their success and profitable enough that the pair have reduced their street vending to only a few days a week in order to devote time and labor for larger catered events.
“The money is not in vending because there is not enough street traffic in any of these towns or cities,” said Andersen. “The money is in corporate catering; it’s in going to people’s homes, doing festivals and carnivals.”
With 25 to 30 percent revenue growth over the last four years, business has been steady enough to warrant an expansion into franchising, she said.
The company is offering applicants turnkey franchises for $250,000. Andersen said the competition will be fierce with dozens of interested parties having already approached her.
“To become a Melt Mobile franchisee you have to give us a presentation as to how you are going to be successful,” she said. “You have to do your market research, know your city, what’s going on. … We aren’t just going to give it to anybody. We are going to be incredibly selective.”
While franchises are available nationally, Andersen said she would first like to see the brand expand organically throughout the region, starting with bustling markets with ample foot traffic in places like New Haven, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“It’s like any other business, whether you are a woman or a man, you have to work your butt off to be successful and put in your heart and soul,” said Andersen. “This has been a labor of love for me and Diana. We have never worked harder in our lives. Failure is just not an option for us. We know we have a phenomenal product, we know we have a proven concept, we have figured out what works and what doesn’t, and we just want others to be able to enjoy it.”
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