I Heart Mac & Cheese: Everything You Need To Know About The Comfort Food Chain

SpaghettiOs, tater tot casserole, and sloppy joes are all dishes that simultaneously clog your arteries with their nutrient-free goodness and soothe your soul with the music they make on your tongue. But for the cheese lovers among us, no comfort food hits the spot quite like that cheese sauce slapped on top of pasta delight known as macaroni and cheese. Many have paid homage to this beloved entree. Crayola once made a color named in its honor and the fine nation of Canada considers the foodie favorite one of its national dishes. However, one U.S.-born chain breathes, eats, and sells it. Can you say I Heart Mac & Cheese?

Yes, you know the one, that magical fast-casual chain with a mac & cheese bar. Although it's only been around since 2016, I Heart Mac & Cheese has caused quite a stir in the online and IRL foodie community. And today, we're going to tell you about the chain's cheese mobiles, cheese tacos, and cheese crimes. Here's everything you need to know before you step into one of these Willy Wonka-esque whimsical cheese-filled restaurants. 

It's available in 30 states and counting

If you haven't seen an I Heart Mac & Cheese in your state, don't worry. A fancy mac & cheese bar is surely on its way. The chain has been growing like cheese sauce splattered wildfire since it first stuck lobster and mac & cheese in a heart-shaped bowl in its original Boca Florida location in 2016. Just one year later, the store began franchising and everyone wanted a scoop of the cheesy action. By 2020, I Heart Mac & Cheese had signed 100 franchising deals. In 2021, it signed off on 47 more, and in 2022, the chain went global when it signed off on a franchise in Ontario, Canada.

Currently, you can find I Heart Mac & Cheese in 30 states. However, the company is hoping to bring mac & cheese to the final 20 as soon as it can. In fact, its current growth plan is all about getting as many build-your-own-mac bars into as many new states as possible. And considering its expansion rate, it may not be long before it meets its goal.

You can customize your own cheesy bowl

If you're a cheese lover, when you walk into an I Heart Mac & Cheese, you may want to brace yourself. This chain has a fully equipped macaroni and cheese bar filled with a paradise of pastas, protein, veggies, sauces and, of course, cheese.

By choosing to build your own bowl, you'll first pick a base (which can be anything from pasta to tater tots) and then top it with a sauce (you can go for cheese or red sauce). Then, things get really funky when you get to the proteins. This chain gives you the option to layer short ribs, meatballs, pepperoni, ham, chicken (grilled or fried), pulled pork, bacon, ground beef, or lobster on top of your pasta. If your inner child wasn't already growing faint with delight, you then can choose to add an extra sauce (ranging from pesto to BBQ), vegetables, and — get this — two extra slices of a cheese of your choice. And do they ever have cheese. Blue cheese, mozzarella, muenster, parmesan, pepper jack, swiss, white cheddar, and yellow cheddar are all waiting for you to put on your mac & cheese bowl. So yes, here the mac & cheese recipe possibilities are endless.

But mac & cheese isn't the only cheesy thing on the menu

It turns out that I Heart Mac & Cheese is a source for not only your favorite childhood food but all things that are good and cheesy. Aside from its signature dish, I Heart Mac & Cheese is also a grilled cheese specialist. The chain not only sells a classic version of the beloved dinner, but gives guests the option to stuff their sandwich with mac & cheese, offers a grilled cheese-ified and lettuce-less version of the BLT (the L stands for loving here), and allows customers to fully customize their sandwich with the same high-quality proteins and cheeses they can put in their mac. The cheese, however, does not stop there.

I Heart Mac & Cheese sells Macpanadas (which is literally an empanada stuffed with mac & cheese rather than meat) in three different flavors – pure mac, mac & beef, and mac & spinach, as well as cheese-drenched broccoli and bites of fried macaroni and cheese that can come stuffed with jalapenos, buffalo chicken, or pepperoni. Oh, and once you finish your cheese entree and cheese side, you can then order cheesecake bites for dessert.

It got a quarantine makeover

In the beginning of its natural cheese life, I Heart Mac & Cheese was a brand that really played into the whole hip dairy farm concept. Originally, the chain's restaurants were covered in cows and cow memorabilia. Each location featured wallpaper with an array of cows and cheese (presumably made from the happy cows' milk) plus a generous spread of little red hearts on a white background, empty milk bottles were housed on wooden shelves, and customers sat in aluminum chairs and tables. However, in 2020, I Heart Mac & Cheese kissed its milk bottles goodbye and reworked its cow decor to make way for a more photograph-friendly restaurant look.

This interior design overhaul is the reason why all of the company's locations now feature dimmer overhead lighting, a statement faux grass wall, wooden tables and yellow chairs, and ambient neon signs. While the cow wallpaper design is still present, it's on a black rather than white background, which makes the restaurant easier on the eyes. And the move to give its stores' look a makeover was obviously a good one. These days, customers love to strike a pose by the chain's grassy wall, which sports the I Heart Mac & Cheese logo, almost as much as they love the pasta they come to the chain for.

It offers several vegan, dairy free, gluten free and better for you options

You love mac & cheese. If you didn't, you wouldn't be here. But you have to admit it's not the most health-forward or dietary-friendly meal. Just look at Panera's mac & cheese. A large bowl of mac from the famous chain clocks in at 960 calories and aside from 32 grams of protein, not much in the way of beneficial nutrients. However, at I Heart Mac & Cheese, all eaters can order a cheesy meal that suits their dietary needs.

For the more health-conscious, when you build your own bowl, you can opt to switch out regular pasta for cauliflower or quinoa and pile your dinner high with an assortment of fresh veggies. And if you're vegan, this chain has plenty of options for you. Aside from offering vegan cheese sauce, I Heart Mac & Cheese has a pre-built vegan menu that features vegan-friendly classic-style mac & cheese that can be sprinkled with Beyond Meat beef, a Vegan Delight bowl, and three different vegan grilled cheese sandwiches. And don't worry gluten-free folk, you haven't been left out. The chain also offers gluten-free pasta.

It was founded by a professional chef and a businessman

"I am the cure for boring food," reads professional chef Micheal Blum's Instagram profile. So are you really shocked this is the man who came up with the concept for I Heart Mac & Cheese? Let us tell you the tale of this business's glorious carb-on-dairy beginnings.

One day Blum, a chef and caterer, decided to do the unthinkable — set up a mac & cheese bar fit for a child's b-day party at a very grown-up catering event. However, the guests not only swarmed around the comfort food like bees but topped their cheesy bowls with the likes of filet mignon. What was a man to do then, but decide to open a restaurant dedicated to mixing mac with lobster and truffle oil?

However, while Blum had the food concept, it was one Stephen Giordanella (pictured above) who had the business brain. Having first started out with his own private body armor business (yes, the body armor to mac & cheese restaurant transition is a strange one), Giordanella helped Blum come up with a plan that would bring I Heart Mac & Cheese to Life. 

It once sold a taco filled with mac & cheese

In 2022, mac & cheese went where it has never gone before when this brand stuffed it into a nacho cheese taco shell. The Tacoroni, as it was called, was once featured in videos across TikTok. Although the Tacoroni was constantly popping up on social media, as of June 2023, it has mysteriously (and quietly) disappeared from the brand's menu. But it has left behind several mourning admirers. As one Instagrammer so aptly said, "so sad they took these off the menu, they were my favorite."

So what happened? While there was no official announcement, we have our theories. For one thing, at $9.99 for a trio, the Tacoroni was a lot cheaper than the majority of I Heart Mac & Cheese's entree menu items (the build-your-own mac bowl, for example, starts at around $15). So it may not have been making enough for the brand to want to keep it around. Secondly, the chain may have removed these cheesy tacos, but you know what it just introduced this summer? The Macpanada. So the brand may have been making way for this cheaper side by taking Tacoroni off the menu. However, just because these mac & cheese tacos are gone now doesn't mean they'll stay gone forever. Plenty of food chains have brought back items they once threw to the side. For now, though, fans can only pray (and maybe petition?) for the Tacoroni's comeback.

At first, customers weren't too wild about its mac & cheese sauce

These days, I Heart Mac & Cheese is on fire. Its unique mac & cheese bar concept has earned the company over 16,000 Instagram followers and just shy of 10,000 likes on Facebook. However, in 2017, customers weren't digging the innovative mac & cheese. Why? While the toppings and pasta were on point, allegedly, the most important part of the whole mac & cheese composition wasn't delivering: the cheese sauce.

Customers left some pretty scathing reviews about the cheese that goes with this chain's Mac at the second-ever franchise, which was located in Oklahoma. According to Franchise Times, these comfort food critics reported that the sauce's taste resembled cheap Cheez Whiz. So even paired with lobster or quinoa, the mac & cheese itself tasted sub-par. In fact, people's feelings about the lackluster cheese topping may have been one of the reasons the location lasted a mere 8 months before closing its doors for good.

However, while there was never any official word on whether I Heart Mac & Cheese changed its sauce recipe, these days, reviews are more positive. So it seems I Heart Mac & Cheese has gotten its cheese sauce act together.

It has been sued by and sued its franchisees

Ladies and gentlemen, there has been some trouble in this cheese-laden paradise. The legal kind. So remember how we just mentioned that the second-ever franchisee, Genevieve Prieto, had to close down shop months after she opened her I Heart Mac & Cheese location? According to Prieto, although she was informed that the original I Heart Mac & Cheese was making $700,000 a year, it turned out that the store was only bringing home $262,054 annually. And so after her store closed down due to a lack of sales, she sued the brand on the grounds of illegal financial performance representations. But Prieto is not the only franchisee who has made complaints about the chain's profitability. 

Apparently, several franchisees have had problems with the way the company's franchising system works. One franchisee, who invested in two NY-based locations alongside their partner, even emailed other I Heart Mac & Cheese potential investors urging them to not sign on with the brand. The email stated that the couple had to close both of their franchises because "there is not a way to make money on these with the franchise fees and food costs rising" (via the Franchise Times). This move got them sued for slander by the company. So what's the truth? Is the company a cheesy friend or foe? Well, that's up to you to decide.

A famous rock star vandalized one of its locations

In January of 2023, two people vandalized an I Heart Mac & Cheese located in Palm Springs. After they were told they'd have to wait a while to get their mac due to there being a rush of customers, a man and woman made their displeasure known when they broke glasses that shattered on the counter and into the restaurant's pre-prepared food. However, the man in this tragic play wasn't your average angry customer, but a bonafide rock star.

Yes, E.J. Curse is a member of Silent Rage, a glam rock band that rose to popularity in the '80s. And in a truly un-glamorous fashion, it was he and a friend who defaced the I Heart Mac & Cheese. However, after he was identified online, E.J. did make a (since deleted) apology on Instagram. According to Metal Sludge, in it, he revealed he contacted the owner of the mac & cheese restaurant to apologize for his wrongdoings against cheese lovers. He settled the damages not long after the incident occurred.

However, there was some beef happening in this apology to I Heart Mac & Cheese. The rock star stated that, although there was "no excuse" for his behavior, there was "obviously a backstory as to what led to my reaction." However, the rocker didn't go into the saucy details.

It once challenged a professional eater to a cheese eating contest

45 minutes. 5 pounds of cheesy goodness. In 2022, professional eater Nathan Figueroa put his cheese chops to the test when he took on I Heart Mac & Cheese's custom food challenge.

Here were the stakes. Figueroa was tasked with downing three bowls of mac & cheese, two grilled cheese sandwiches, eight mac a& cheese bites, one cup of cookies, and eight cheesecake bites in the span of 45 minutes. And after slamming down everything from macaroni bowls to fried mac & cheese, with the help of some water and a lot of determination, Figueroa stated that although he went over the time limit (he ate everything in just over 56 minutes) he was able to down all the food I Heart Mac & Cheese had thrown at him. However, the people did not agree.

Although Figueroa did not list tater tots as a part of the eats he was challenged to inhale at a rapid rate, they appeared in the video as a side for the grilled cheese sandwiches. Many fans complained that because he did not devour the tots, he did not actually finish the challenge. "If they weren't part of the challenge they should have been left off of the trays!" griped one Facebook commenter. But whether you think Figueroa successfully ate his way through the challenge or wimped out, one thing is for sure, a lot of cheese was eaten on that fateful day.

It has a cheesemobile

Nothing goes together quite like mac & cheese and racing. Yes, I Heart Mac & Cheese has a race car — or more accurately a race truck. In 2022, racer Bobby Reuse made history by partnering with the brand to bring perhaps the cheesiest vehicle of all time to the professional racing world. Debuting in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Race, Reuse's number three Chevy truck has mac & cheese-themed designs plastered all over it. And when it pulls ahead of the pack, competitors are treated to reading "we've been known to be a little cheesy" on the truck's tailgate, which we're sure they completely appreciate.

So what drives a man to drive a cheesy Chevy? According to Reuse, his motivation was simple. He just adores the stuff.

"I don't trust people who don't like mac & cheese," the racer said when asked about the collab (per Fast Casual). And Reuse is a man of his word. After all, he was the first franchisee to open an I Heart Mac & Cheese in Alabama. It seems the gene for loving mac & cheese runs thick in the Reuse family's blood. The I Heart Mac & Cheese Chevy was also driven by Reuse's brother, Roger, in the Circuit of the Americas that same year.