Oh, you fancy: Franchisees to debut fancy comfort food concept Nov. 20

Next week, Tampa Bay's first Tom+Chee, nearly two years in the making, will open in St. Pete.

click to enlarge SAY CHEESE: Tom+Chee franchise owners Holly Mace and Matt Wagner. - Meaghan Habuda
Meaghan Habuda
SAY CHEESE: Tom+Chee franchise owners Holly Mace and Matt Wagner.

Grilled cheese has helped Holly Mace and Matt Wagner meet in the middle, more than once.

When the engaged duo was dating, Mace was a vegetarian, and the versatility of grilled cheese — a comfort food staple they'd eat on Fridays while watching Shark Tank — often allowed for tasty compromise. The beloved ABC series is how the couple found Tom+Chee, too.

Mace says they never thought they'd get a call back from the tom-ato soup and grilled chee-se restaurant concept that began at a food tent in Cincinnati, Ohio, but they did. And though their franchisee journey began almost two years ago, the Wesley Chapel couple's first location will open to the Tyrone area of St. Petersburg Friday, Nov. 20.

They're set to open five restaurants in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties over the next five years.

"To really be in it and doing it is surreal now," Mace says.

Combining the former homes of a Starbucks and a Quiznos to create one 2,600-square-foot building at 6802 22nd Ave. N., Tom + Chee is a "fresh-casual" chain, as Mace puts it; there aren't any fryers, freezers or microwaves involved.

The restaurant's known for its inventive combos — everything from crunchy grilled cheese and a build-your-own sandwich to a salad with grilled cheese croutons and fancy grilled cheese doughnuts. The Hot+Spicy (pepperoni, cherry peppers, onions, pepper Jack, wheat berry), Blueberry Blue (blueberry compote, blue cheese, lemon mascarpone, glazed doughnut) and Swiss+Shroom (grilled 'shrooms, onion, Swiss, pumpernickel rye) are among the many quirky offerings.

Good luck deciding.

On top of seasonal items and produce sourced locally when possible, the menu will highlight vegan and gluten-free options (vegan cheese and butter included), signature house-made tomato soups, a "soup dipper" to dunk your sandwich in and countless specials. Wagner pulled out a huge, thick red binder full of recipes during their interview with CL Wednesday. There are 500 off-the-menu recipes, he says, for daily specials in there.

"It's really innovative what they've done," Wagner says.

According to Mace and Wagner, who have scoped out Wesley Chapel's Shops at Wiregrass for their second Tom + Chee, they avoided Pinellas at first. The duo wanted a flagship in the middle of it all — Carrollwood, Westshore, USF.

Striking out in Hillsborough eventually led them to their 80-seat space across from Tyrone Square Mall. Covered in yellow and red, the restaurant features a St. Pete-driven mural, room for local art on the walls and, soon after the launch, an outdoor patio with a canopy.

During the grand opening, a ribbon-cutting ceremony will take place at 10:30 a.m., the first 50 customers will receive complimentary goody bags and anyone who camps outside the store the night before will land free grilled cheese for a year.

Tom+Chee plans to operate 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday.

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