Tom & Chee: Here's What Happened After Shark Tank

Nothing beats a great homemade grilled cheese sandwich with a steaming bowl of comforting soup — except, that is, having somebody else make it for you. When Trew and Jennifer Quackenbush, Jenny Rachford, and Corey Ward began serving up the historically traditional pairing of grilled cheese and tomato soup in a pop-up tent in Cincinnati's Fountain Square in 2009, it proved so popular that they decided to turn it into a full-blown business.

Trew Quackenbush (who was a chef) and Ward (who was a graphic designer) first came up with the grilled cheese concept while at a backyard cookout. In addition to the tomato-and-cheese-based combo, which inspired the company's name, they also came up with a unique signature dish: the grilled cheese donut, switching the usual bread for a glazed sweet treat. (You can also swap grilled cheese bread for flaky croissants if that sounds appealing).

While working at the tent alongside full-time jobs, the four saved up to open the first brick-and-mortar location for Tom + Chee (the original styling of the name) in 2010, situated on Cincinnati's Court Street. They launched a second restaurant in Newport on the Levee six months later. The business got its first taste of TV exposure when Adam Richman popped in for a visit for his Travel Channel show in 2011. After months of email correspondence with producers, Quackenbush and Ward then headed to "Shark Tank" hoping for an investment to further boost the brand.

What happened to Tom & Chee on Shark Tank?

Tom & Chee appeared on season 4,  episode 26 of "Shark Tank," which aired in May 2013. By this time, the company had already sold one franchise, and the three restaurants employed 70 people. To help the business expand further, Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward sought a $600,000 investment in return for a 10% stake.

While the Sharks may not have been immediately sold by the idea of a grilled cheese donut, they were impressed by the brand's figures upon learning it had grossed over $1.5 million. Barbara Corcoran offered $300,000 for a 15% stake but wanted another Shark to also come on board to provide the full amount Tom & Chee were asking for.

Kevin O'Leary and Robert Herjavec offered $100,000 each for 5%, but then Mark Cuban agreed to partner with Corcoran and offer the other $300,000, also for 15%. "Everything in my bones [is] saying this is a runaway hit," Corcoran boldly declared about the grilled cheese venture (via YouTube). The duo agreed to partner with Corcoran and Cuban, happy with the deal they received. 

Tom & Chee after Shark Tank

The company received a spectacular boost immediately after the show was broadcast. Following the episode airing on a Friday evening, Tom & Chee had received 2,400 requests regarding franchising by the next Monday morning. In the following months, that rose to over 9,000 requests.

But the "Shark Tank" deal didn't quite go through as planned after the show. Mark Cuban dropped out, believing that Tom & Chee should be looking at corporate stores instead of franchises. Barbara Corcoran remained an investor, with a smaller deal and less equity, and the business continued to blossom. In 2016, Forbes crowned it one of the 10 best businesses to come out of "Shark Tank." By this point, Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward owned four restaurants, with another 31 that were franchises.

A "Shark Tank" update show in season 8 showed Quackenbush and Ward hosting their franchise conference, with Corcoran as a keynote speaker. Seven years after the business launched in its little pop-up tent, Tom & Chee had made $47 million in sales, creating over 500 jobs. The menu had grown to more than a dozen sandwich variations, with several different soups and specials — plus an option to create your own sandwich.

Is Tom & Chee still in business?

Tom & Chee is still in business, but it hasn't all been smooth sailing. In 2014, the company admitted that it had grown too rapidly and had to lay off several workers, as well as having had to resort to borrowing money. Stores began to close in 2015 and in 2017, when it was down to 23 locations, the brand's assets were acquired by GSR Brands, the parent company of Cincinnati's Gold Star Chilli.

In 2019, two years after the takeover, GSR started to streamline and simplify the business, including stripping back its huge menu, and updating the branding so that Tom + Chee became Tom & Chee. A new prototype, which opened in 2020, switched the focus to smaller stores, with high-speed ovens replacing the old grills to make creating the sandwiches a much faster procedure. But then the pandemic hit, and the company had to pivot to to-go ordering.

By 2021, the company was once again ready to start expanding. New locations began to open. And the shorter menu's focus evolved from the basic grilled cheese sandwich recipe (with a huge variety of options) to melts, which Roger David, president and CEO of Gold Star Brands, felt offered more value for customers thanks to their added protein content.

What's next for Tom & Chee?

Tom & Chee looks to continue its model of smaller branches and shorter menus. There are now under 10 melts on the menu, along with a small selection of soups and salads — though the famous grilled cheese donut remains. In November of 2023, the brand launched a special melt called The Golden Cheese Touch – topped with mac n' cheese and barbecue sauce on parmesan-crusted bread — to raise money for a cancer charity. Seasonal specials for summer 2024 included a strawberry peach salad with goat cheese and a gluten-free loaded baked potato soup. And the brand's future involves plans to broaden the food offering (and its appeal) further.

The new approach seems to be paying off. The Cincinnati Enquirer named Gold Star and Tom & Chee a winner of the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky Top Workplaces 2024 Award. The combined businesses employ 1700 people. The brand was also a finalist in the grilled cheese category for the Greater Cincinnati 2024 Family Choice Awards while the franchise model continues to encourage new entrepreneurs to run their own Tom & Chee location, with franchises costing between $339,700 and $704,000.

But it seems the founders have moved on. According to Trew Quackenbush's LinkedIn, he's been a culinary instructor at a high school since July 2018. Corey Ward launched a new company called Planet-B Games in 2022, but things may have fallen through as he was looking for work in May of 2024 on Facebook.