Big Cheese

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    The story of Tom + Chee goes back to Fountain Square on Dec. 3, 2009. Jenn Quackenbush and Jennifer Rachford decided to sell some simple grilled cheese, tomato soup, coffee and hot chocolate in a 10×10 tent in front of the ice skating rink.


    The dynamic duo knew that by selling grilled cheese and tomato soup to those out shopping, ice-skating and braving the Queen City cold, they could bring an affordable and approachable dining option. “Everyone is familiar and comfortable with grilled cheese and tomato soup,” says Quackenbush. “It brings back a lot of memories of childhood and is a great way to create new memories with your own family.”


    Quackenbush and Rachford started Tom + Chee with a list of simple goals and just wanted to have fun working for themselves. “We wanted the chance to be our own bosses and treat our crew in the way we wanted to be treated, and even better than that,” says Quackenbush. “We knew we could hire the best and care about them and we know that if we started from there we would succeed.”


    Rachford says they wanted to bring something different and unexpected to the Queen City. “Our family, friends and enthusiastic customers convinced us that we really had come up with something special,” she explains, “and day by day we saw our dream grow and change into the potential for the life-changing company we’ve become today.”


    Grow and change, indeed. Today, Tom + Chee is becoming a franchise and hundreds of stores are opening across the country. Quackenbush and Rachford say they currently have 41 signed franchisees and 172 store openings under contract to open their doors by 2018. Today, there are currently 17 stores open.


    They went from a six-member crew in December 2009 to approximately 130 employees between six corporate stores and their office staff. Their husbands were even on the popular television show Shark Tank, where they received the funding they needed to take Tom + Chee to the next level.


    Of course, with starting any new business comes obstacles and the occasional hiccup. “We’ve had to learn how to adapt and develop our business between restaurant operations and corporate structure with the help of advisors and other industry professionals,” Rachford explains.


    Quackenbush adds that opening the business has been a huge leap in personal growth. She jokes that you don’t need a college degree to start a business but you get 10 degrees from opening 10 stores in two years!


    What Quackenbush and Rachford like the most about running Tom + Chee is that every day is different and brings a variety of challenges. “I get up, put on my ‘football pads and helmet,’ and get ready to tackle the day,” laughs Quackenbush.

     The Rachfords and Quackenbushes opening a Tom + Chee

    The local ladies are quite optimistic about the future of the business, too. “Our goal is grilled cheese domination,” says Rachford. “We believe it’s an awesome fast casual option in a market currently surrounded by the same, sometimes boring, everyday choices. We’re excited to grow in the franchising model, it gives us the opportunity to build relationships and share our success with others who want to own their own businesses.”


    Rachford also adds that everyone at Tom + Chee can be themselves and never have to compromise on what they think is right. “We built this company with love, fun and the drive to never give up,” she says. “And we know as long as all of that continues and grows then we are doing the right thing.”


    On top of a booming business, Quackenbush and Rachford are also mothers. Ward says that doing all she needs to do while being a mom is extremely challenging, but some of the best advice she got early on was to be present. “When I’m with my daughter, she’s the most important thing in my world,” she says. “That means when we come home from work, phones go off and no checking email or anything but family time. We have such a short time from the end of work until her bedtime that those few hours are precious.”


    Quackenbush says that the working mother balance comes naturally. “Our family routine Monday through Friday means we go to work and our daughter goes to school and then we all come home and pick up where we left off,” she explains. “Our kids get lots of chances to see and experience the growth of our company and it’s so fun to watch it through their eyes. I feel lucky that my husband and I can work side-by-side and see development from many different aspects of the business. Also, our daughter was born a little less than six months before we began Tom + Chee so it’s so much fun to see both of them grow and turn five this year!”


    While it’s easy and natural to put your children first, it’s a lot more challenging to make time for yourself and your marriage. “It’s something we both hope to work on and put effort into making better,” they both add.


    While Quackenbush and Rachford are working to open Tom + Chee stores across the nation, they also want to stay very rooted in Cincinnati. In fact, their newest restaurant just opened at 125 East Court Street and features a completely new design that fits the culture of the chain: Eat What’s Fun!


    There’s also a 5th anniversary celebration on Dec. 3 from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the Tom + Chee home on Fountain Square. Mayor John Cranley will declare it “Tom + Chee Day” and there will be a variety of activities and free grilled cheese. Additionally, there’s a new store opening in West Chester and an upcoming eatery opening its doors at Harrison Green in Green Township late next spring.


    To learn more about Tom + Chee, visit, “like” their Facebook page and check out the new store on Court Street. “Our office is just upstairs and you can bet it’s our favorite place for lunch,” they say. “Come by, hang out, grab a bite, we’re always up for a good chat!”