Pop up case study: The Big Cheesy, a grilled cheese competition in Nolita

Even with 1.6 million people in Manhattan, there’s rarely a grilled cheese party. The comfort food that gained popularity during the Great Depression doesn’t do well as a restaurant’s main dish either. Ludlow Street’s Grilled Cheese NYC closed down in ’06 after six years of fair to moderate success. Make a grilled cheese the main attraction at a pop up, though, and you’re likely to pack the house.


In March, Openhouse created The Big Cheesy, a two-day Soho pop up that featured seven chefs from across the city. Over one weekend, they griddled and pan-fried sandwiches for more then 500 New York foodies who voted for their favorites with cheddar-colored ping pong balls. Participating restaurants and food trucks included:


Alice’s Tea Cup from the Upper East Side; Artisanal in Murray Hill; Barnyard Cheese Shop from the East Village; Big Daddy’s Diner in the Flatiron District; Bua on St. Mark’s; The Milk Truck from Fort Greene; and Todd English’s Plaza Food Hall from beneath the Plaza Hotel.


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Openhouse partnered with Gilt Groupe to sell tickets for The Big Cheesy pop up. At $25 a ticket, guests got to sample seven sandwiches and taste two pints from Sixpoint Brewery. Tickets sold at a clip of 85 per hour, and the Soho pop up sold out in six hours. To cajole some online-community excitement, Openhouse also offered 10 tickets – each was a plus-one – for Facebook fans who came up with the cheesiest jokes.


Openhouse picked the grilled cheese pop up contestants by scouring review sites to see who New Yorkers already liked. The pop up space also gave each food establishment $200 to cover some of their costs like set up and transportation.


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Each chef added their own signature to make the cheese-and-bread sandwich a bit more interesting. Artisanal went with mushrooms, brie cheese and truffle oil while Alice’s Tea Hall added chicken breast and gruyere to their semolina bread slices. Barnyard stacked big slabs of pre-buttered rustic bread, Big Daddy’s Diner served theirs with bacon and, yes, mac n cheese, spearing the ‘wich with a cornichon. Todd English’s grilled cheese had truffles, provolone, pecorino and spicy jam on focaccia and Bua offered the choice of Irish taleggio or Irish cheddar.


While Big Daddy’s had to be the most creative, Milk Truck garnered the most ping-pong votes. Chef Keith Klein used rosemary focaccia as his base and layered it with bleu, cheddar, gruyere, mushrooms and onions. Todd English’s Plaza Food Hall narrowly beat out Bua for second place after weekend of back and forth. Klein’s winning recipe was featured in Edible Manhattan and the New York Daily News.


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Got a cheesy joke? Share it with Openhouse’s 4,500 fans at the Facebook Comedy Club.

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