Why would you spend Rs 250 on a grilled cheese sandwich you could put together at home? We suggest you get a taste of The Fromagerie. The warm and gooey middle of their gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches will certainly change your mind and leave you wanting more.
Grilled cheese sandwiches from the Mumbai-based The Fromagerie left us satisfied when we went behind the scenes to celebrate Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day with the founder Nuzha Ebrahim and caught her in action as she flipped grilled cheese sandwich orders for delivery and prepped for their next pop-up.
"I ate grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast", "I can make this at home" are reactions the 28-year-old Nuzha often hears from the potential customers that flock her gourmet grilled cheese sandwich pop-up stall at flea markets and music gigs. However, the remarks do little to deter the restaurateur-in-the-making who states nonchalantly, "I am very cocky about my product. I tell them, 'You buy it, you eat it and then you come back to me with your feedback'."
"The feedback has always been a 100 per cent positive," adds Nuzha, who started the company in October 2017 with a capital of Rs 30,000. "It gives me the confidence in what we are doing." Almost two years later, Nuzha has her hands full hosting close to 10 pop-ups a month. When she's not prepping for the pop-up stalls, Nuzha is busy catering to private parties, meeting home delivery orders, testing bread, tasting cheese and formulating new sandwich recipes.
The pop-up model started as a way to test the waters and check how her idea performs in the real world. Now, with the experience of several events in her kitty, Nuzha notes the many ways her founding business model has helped in her company's evolution. "Pop-ups are a lot more fun," she exclaims. "The reason I do them instead of putting myself in a store is that pop-ups help us meet and discover a huge variety of people." She plans to stick to her pop-up guns in the near future as well, explaining, "They give us the opportunity to not only understand the consumer but also evolve from their reception of our products."
Trial & Error
The company's journey has been one of trial and error and the learnings have led Nuzha to strategically select the events where her pop-up will be found. "In the first year we grabbed at every opportunity that came our way," she recollects, "but it gave us an understanding of what works for us and what doesn't."
Having tested the waters, Nuzha now has better clarity on the kind of events and venues where her product will be well-received, and the age groups that are most likely to welcome it.
The Fromagerie, of course, attracts a huge millennial, under 35 crowd that is familiar with the idea of a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich, however, Nuzha made a surprising, albeit heartwarming, discovery over the months of flipping grilled cheese sandwiches to hungry customers. "The over 50-55 crowd loves my grilled cheese sandwiches," she exclaims delightfully and promptly adds that they are her "favourite customers".
Majja Ni Life
"The younger crowd will usually irritate me with 'less butter, less cheese' instructions and I feel like telling them, 'toh mat hi khao na'," says Nuzha, revealing a bit of the cocky confidence she mentioned earlier. "The 60+ are the ones allowing me to be liberal with the butter and cheese, telling me, 'beta, butter pyaar se lagaana haan, ek dum crisp hona chahiye,'" she narrates between laughter, "I feel like asking them, 'where were you all my life?' My heart soars when they say 'more cheese, please!'."
While grilled cheese sandwiches may have a bad rep for little nutritional value, Nuzha is aware that her product is "an indulgence. It is a feel-good food," she says. While Nuzha points out that she is is no advocate of healthy eating, she is careful about not promoting voyeuristic eating habits either. "I am very conscious about the ingredients I use and where I source them from. We guarantee quality," states Nuzha confidently. "We do not use processed cheese or bread that is loaded with preservatives for shelf life."
Experimenting with different kinds of bread took up a large part of the company's development phase. "People who work with sandwiches often tend to overlook the bread they use and honestly, it's criminal," says Nuzha, "If you work with sandwiches and your base isn't good then I don't know what you're doing."
Clean and Simple
Next came the cheese, of course. "We experiment with different kinds of cheese as well," says Nuzha. "The way I look at cheese, it has to complement the flavours of the other ingredients in the sandwich rather than being there for voyeurism's sake, extra and dripping. We do simple, clean flavours."
Talking of how her grilled cheese sammies are different from their American cousins, Nuzha explains, "American food is very, very extra. It borders on ridiculous. Instagram has fuelled the popularity for voyeuristic food," she notes, referring to the cheesy deep dishes and fried mars bars that often tend to go viral on social media. "As a chef, it's disheartening to see food that is made for its visual appeal than for flavour."
So Much Cheese
Unawareness about the cheese variety available is also to blame, notes Nuzha as she quips about the desi obsession with processed white cheese and refusal to look beyond it. Taking the example of blue cheese, she says, "Most people are likely to turn up their nose at its mention because they think it is 'yucky'. I was like that too."
A Harmony of Flavours
"I had almost sworn off blue cheese but as I travelled and worked with it more, I began to understand it as a product and how it can be used to make another ingredient taste better, adding value to the sandwich's overall flavour. I do a Buffalo Chicken Sandwich, it's similar to Buffalo Wings with Blue Cheese Dip but packed into a grilled cheese sandwich. The flavours go so beautifully together, it's just harmony."
The Fromagerie also packs in innovative and local ingredients that are bound to be a flavourful exploration waiting to be savoured. "We see how ingredients work with each other keeping in mind the Indian palate. Desis love masala and don't respond well to simple, bland flavours," she notes and adds, "We don't unnecessarily introduce trending ingredients but we do outlandish flavours sometimes."
One such example from the Fromagerie's menu is their Ghost Chilly (aka Bhut Jolokia) Tomato Jam with Mature English Cheddar sandwich which is surprisingly "popular with the expat crowd," reports Nuzha. "We've seen success with expats as they identify with grilled cheese sandwiches," she says. "Presuming spice doesn't go down well with white people, I tend to warn them about the jolokia's unexpected twist but many say they actually love spice."
If you happen to bump into Team Fromagerie at two events over the same weekend, you are likely to be treated to two different menus. "I am always experimenting with new sandwiches and the pop-ups are a great testing ground," says Nuzha. "I customise the menu slightly, according to the event we're hosting at and the kind of crowd that's likely to be there." If the response is positive, the sandwich stays on the menu.
Talking of the ever-present and fastest-selling sandwiches on The Fromagerie's menu, Nuzha says, "Our Four Cheese Blend and Chilli Cheese Toast are the most popular. People are familiar with them so they tend to order those but we do it in our signature style so it keeps them coming back for more." While people refuse to let her take the signature sandwiches off her menu, Nuzha confesses, "They're curbing my creativity."
"Cheese is an untapped concept in the Indian food market," she notes. While grilled cheese sandwiches may not be as established as the current dominant cheese heroes like pizzas and burgers, Nuzha sees business potential in India's dormant sandwich market. "We don't have a sandwich culture like the West. The only sandwich culture we have is either street food sandwiches or maybe those from American-style quick service restaurants," she points out.
"When people have our grilled cheese sandwich, they ask why it isn't more widely available so it's certainly an emerging trend. It's still a long way before we become the next pizza but we're getting there," says Nuzha before signing off.
Images Courtesy: The Fromagerie, Henna Achhpal and Shreya Jalavadia