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The Melt: Grilled Cheese & Soup for the 21st Century

Photo by Henrik Kam

It's lunchtime and your blood sugar is low. You venture into the downtown wilderness, have no clue what you want to eat and fear the long lines snaking out of all your favorite spots. Opening today, The Melt–that new high tech grilled cheese chain that'll open 500 locations around the US in the very near future–is the first place in the Financial District smorgasbord that's going to eliminate the tedious lunchtime wait for savvy eaters once and for all.

It's owned by Jonathan Kaplan, the man who founded Flip Camera–and Michael Mina is on the company board to help with recipes. In his presentation last week, Kaplan called The Melt "as much a tech company as a restaurant," and once you set foot inside the door, it certainly feels that way. Their cooking technology boggles the mind; they've got sandwich presses that make grilled cheese sandwiches gooey and delicious in 60 seconds flat, and special soup warmers that gently heat large batches of their housemade soups (using ingredients picked at peak ripeness and then frozen to preserve flavor) without losing any of the freshness.

Made for a future when high-end smartphones are the norm, the best part is this: Use their browser-based app or website to order a sandwich ($5.95), soup, or sandwich-soup combo ($8.95). They'll ping you with a QR code, which you scan on a countertop scanner with your phone (skipping the line entirely). That's when your order is placed and your credit card charged, and you'll be out the door again — so they claim — in no more than two minutes. And if something comes up and you can't go down to The Melt to grab your lunch, or you change your mind and want a different sandwich? You'll stay guilt-free, because nothing happens until you scan your phone on the countertop.

But it goes further. In 6 months, they're developing geo-fencing. So, if you're walking to The Melt to scan in your order, the restaurant will detect your phone within a one-block radius and send you a text asking if you want them to get a head start on your sandwich.

And how's the food? It's great, for the chain it hopes to become. You'll never get something as homemade-tasting at a Quizno's or a Chipotle. I tried The Wild Thing Combo, an aged gruyere grilled cheese on herbed whole wheat that comes with creamy wild mushroom soup. They also have "The Classic," using cheddar cheese that comes with tomato soup and a couple other sandwiches. They're not gutbombs (but you can add tomato and bacon to every sandwich) because all their ingredients are fresh, local, and use very little butter because of those new-fangled sando presses. For your sweet tooth, they have boxes of Cracker Jacks ("because they're nostalgic and cool"), warm housemade cookies and whole fruit — last week they even had Pluots.

Kaplan says they're exploring vegan options using avocado or hummus (fake cheese has too many preservatives for The Melt's taste), and vegetarians can take comfort knowing all their soups are made without chicken stock except for the Italian sausage and pepper variety. Off-menu items will rotate every week (check Facebook or Twitter to be in the know)–we tried two sweet grilled sandwiches: the excellent fig-laden "No Peanut Butter PB&J" and decadent "S'Mores". As one of the owners declared to me, "It's stoner food." Beer, wine on tap, and even Sofia champagne cans will appear on the tightly edited menus in a month or two.

They'll have four Bay Area locales open by Thanksgiving, but how will the other 496 Melts fare? Only time (and the ubiquity of smartphones) will tell. For now, it's all one giant, tasty test. Stop by their very first outpost at 115 New Montgomery Street and try a restaurant that could just change the way America eats, for yourself.