What Happened To Tom + Chee After Shark Tank?

Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush created Tom & Chee in 2009 in a tent in Cincinnati's Fountain Square. It sells everyone's favorite childhood comfort food, grilled cheese, as well as tomato soup. But the sandwiches come with some unique twists. Customers can get the usual white, wheat, rye, or sourdough bread, or they can get their grilled cheese on a glazed donut, which was its signature creation. For those who want a little something fancier than the familiar cheddar or American cheese, there's brie, smoked gouda, and even blue cheese. Extras include potato chips and cheesy tots, and if you need a little help, you can always order a fancy grilled cheese.

Ward and Quackenbush met when their wives introduced them to each other and got the idea for Tom & Chee at a backyard cookout. They formed a connection because they both wanted to start a business. Quackenbush, then a chef at Pelican's Reef, was intrigued by the idea of focusing on grilled cheese. "I was looking at it from a chef's point of view," he told Cincinnati Magazine. "It's simple, not a lot of ingredients, very executable. There are lots of things you can do. It's a carb platform, so you can build lots of stuff inside of it." In Season 4 of "Shark Tank," the founders asked for $600,000 for a 10% stake, and the Sharks laughed. But they changed their tune once they realized how successful Tom & Chee was.

Tom & Chee made a deal with 2 Sharks

After Corey Ward and Trew Quackenbush made their pitch to Mark Cuban, Kevin "Mr. Wonderful" O'Leary, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John, and Barbara Corcoran, the Sharks immediately began picking Tom & Chee apart. While Cuban politely said the menus looked cheap, O'Leary was more unfiltered. "The menus look like crap. The logos are crap. The whole thing's crap. Is crap the brand?" he asked.

Quackenbush explains that the restaurant is a place where a whole family can eat inexpensively. But after they informed the Sharks that their two corporate stores made $1.5 million the past year, even O'Leary started to change his tune. Corcoran offered to give them $300,000 for 15% if they could get another Shark to match the deal.

Herjavec and O'Leary threw in $100,000, and then all eyes were on Cuban. He agreed to invest $300,000 with Corcoran. He also sought exclusive rights to any Texas stores they opened. After Corcoran decided she wanted rights to New York locations, Ward and Quackenbush accepted her and Cuban's combined offer of $600,000 for a 30% stake.

They received 9,000 franchise requests after Shark Tank

Ultimately, the deal didn't stick. Mark Cuban bowed out because he wanted to focus on franchising, while Ward and Quackenbush wanted to pursue corporate locations. "We decided to break up and we looked at each other and we were like 'Did we really just turn down $600,000 and walk away? what are we doing?'" Trew's wife, Jenn Quackenbush, told Cleveland.com. Barbara Corcoran reduced her deal, leaving her with just 1% equity instead of 15%, but the founders could still count on the Shark. "We can reach out to her anytime, she's been amazing," Jenn Quackenbush said.

After "Shark Tank," amid rapid growth and 9,000 franchise requests, Tom & Chee needed extra help with juggling all the demands of the business. So David Krikorian came on board, becoming the president of the company. To say he had high hopes would be putting it mildly. "We see this opportunity in the next two, three, four, five years to have literally hundreds and hundreds of Tom + Chee's all across the country," he told Cincinnati Magazine.

By 2016 Tom + Chee had 31 restaurants in 15 different states, and all but three were franchises, with two corporate stores in Cincinnati and one in Louisville, Kentucky. It also expanded its menu. "We streamlined a bunch of stuff, added some more side items, we added some shareables," Ward told The OrderUp Show. He was excited about making more flavors for the grilled cheese donut.

GSR Brands bought Tom + Chee

New Tom & Chee stores were profitable the first few months after opening, but business would wane. Stores in Ohio, Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, and Wisconsin closed. Ward and Quackenbush couldn't repay the loan they used to grow their business. In September 2017, GSR Brands — the parent company of Gold Star Chili — bought Tom & Chee.

At the time, the founders made it clear they planned to stay, with Ward helping with branding and Quackenbush working on the menu. Despite the company's new ownership, Ward still had a positive outlook. "It's been a crazy whirlwind since ["Shark Tank"], lots of ups and downs. We've grown and learned a lot, but this deal with Gold Star is the best thing for our franchisees," he told the Cincinnati Enquirer. Gold Star's CEO, Roger David, was equally positive. "I've been impressed at how much energy there is around the brand, from franchisees, customers, and from employees, too," he said.

GSR brands began restructuring Tom & Chee. The changes included decreasing the size of restaurants from 3,000 square feet to 1,600 and reducing food prep time. The huge menu overwhelmed customers, so it was heavily cut. The pandemic hit them hard, but David didn't give up. "We're resetting the table to go at it again," he told Franchise Times in 2021. But he acknowledged the product's limits. Speaking with Buzzworthy Brands, he said that "anything called a grilled cheese has a particular price point that you can't exceed and still have the consumer perceive value."

Tom & Chee began expanding again

Tom & Chee seems to be getting back on its feet, thanks to GSR Brands' attention. It started franchising more locations after the pandemic. The Greater Cincinnati area saw its sixth Tom & Chee open in the fall of 2021, highlighting a new "&Crafted" design that included delivery and curbside pickup. It also began focusing more on melts. 

Tom & Chee's social media pages are fairly active, posting offers for holidays or random specials. In November of 2023, it also posted that a portion of the proceeds from sales of its Golden Cheese Touch at Cincinnati locations would go to the nonprofit The Cure Starts Now to support funding for pediatric brain cancer. The company is still focused on growing franchises, which now cost between $339,700 and $704,000.

Trew Quackenbush and Corey Ward seem to have moved on from Tom + Chee and GSR Brands. Quackenbush's LinkedIn says that he's been a high school culinary instructor since July 2018. While Ward's LinkedIn page doesn't list anything since Tom + Chee, he posted on Facebook in 2022 that he was starting a new company called Planet-B Games. One co-founder still involved with the company is Ward's wife, Jennifer Rachford. On LinkedIn, she is listed as the Franchise Development Coordinator for GSR Brands.