Grilled Cheese Sandwiches
By Amy Zimmer
John Behrens hands a woman a scoop of mango sorbet in a paper cup. "This is to aid in your decision making," says the owner of Grilled Cheese, a tiny storefront with a yellow and white-striped awning on Ludlow Street.
"Thanks!," she says, licking the bright-colored slush, but she still can't decide. "I don't know. Maybe the Grilled Motzy"-mozzarella, basil pesto, sundried tomatoes, salad greens. "How's the Black Jack?"-jalepeno jack, tomato, spinach, black olive pesto.
The woman, dressed to make Alicia Keys proud in black leather low-riders, a white doily shirt under a black denim jacket and a black newsboy hat, ponders the menu and finally asks John, a sad-eyed, goateed twenty-eight year-old, "What's your favorite?"
"Do you like mushrooms?"
"I looooove mushrooms."
"I like the Mushroom Madness"-grilled portabellas, roasted garlic, cheddar cheese.
"I'll have that."
Who knew grilled cheese sandwiches could be so complicated? For $3 to $10 you can choose a basic sandwich or one stacked with meats and veggies, and for the non-dairy, non-meat eating pack, Grilled Cheese offers a garden sandwich, fresh-fruit smoothies, vegan dessert tarts, and creamy cultured soy.
A white man with long dreadlocks walks in. John starts preparing the Hamlet-swiss and cheddar cheese, Black Forest ham, onion, tomato-and says they'll deliver it to his art gallery up the block. Terri from TG-170, the uber-hip women's clothing store next door walks in and pours herself a cup of coffee. When the tattooed, side-burned man from the guitar shop two stores down walk in, John greets him, "What's up, bro?" Lorraine, a grant writer for the University Settlement around the corner, unwraps her long knit scarf and orders her usual tomato soup.
"This is an attempt to bring the best of both worlds-restaurants and fast food- together. You want your stuff fast, you don't want to deal with the snooty waiter, you want to see your food, you want to know that people aren't fucking with it," John explains. "My concept: I want to have a cooking show-style kitchen, nice, plush comfortable chairs for everybody. Emphasize fun, but out in the open fun where you really become part of it."
It will be difficult for John to realize his dream in the 325-square-foot space on Ludlow, where half the floor is devoted to customers-four little round tables with a total of ten chairs, and the kitchen has its limitations. "This building is 140 years old," John says. "There's no gas utilities, you couldn't have stoves or anything. It had to be all electrical." But he was stuck with this space.
"The space came before the idea. I was sleeping right where that chalkboard is," he says pointing to a sign that reads, "The Grilled Cheese-just like you, the sandwich grew up." John wanted to turn the space into something, and he had a lot of restaurant experience. "I was a busboy, waiter, bartender. I never did cooking though." He studied nutrition for three years before going to film school. (He originally came to New York from Pittsburgh three years ago to work on films.) "My mom's Italian. She always cooked. And my dad's like an eccentric food nut. I was always eating good stuff, fresh stuff, not even jarred baby food."
John is hanging out on the bench outside, letting the workers-a Filipino skater kid who wants to be a tattoo artist and a young man from Benin who wants to learn English and computer science-handle the lunch crowd. Pat, who lives in the basement beneath the shop, is sitting in a folding chair, drinking in the sunlight. In his pea coat, straggly hair and beard, faraway blue eyes, Pat looks like he just returned from sea. Someone walks by and gives Pat money, and John says, "There's another donation to the Pat charitable fund. The dude's old school. He's seen the block come and go and come. He saw someone got shot on that corner," pointing to the Mexican restaurant.
A heavy-set father and his skinny young daughter walk past the bench after eating sandwiches and playing Connect Four, one of the board games the shop stacks in the corner. The man says to John, "Thanks. It was amazing. We're gonna come back with mommy next time." The little girl rubs her belly and says, "Yum. Yum."
John smiles. "Fresh food comes at a price -- a high price. And there's such a big gap. It's like the declining middle class. There's high-end food and the super low-end food. Where's the middle class food? Where's the good quality at a reasonable price?" he laments. "Like here I can make that happen, but when there's ten stores, that's where the real genius comes in."
John adds, "The only reason I'm in this, is to make more of these because I definitely made more money in film. This is just the starting block. I'd like to have ten of these in Manhattan, maybe a little one in Williamsburg or Prospect or somewhere -- these places I hear about in Brooklyn." Watch out McDonalds.