Matt Fish is living the dream every day at Melt Bar and Grilled

Matt Fish did not set out to revolutionize the experience of dining out in Northeast Ohio when he opened Melt Bar and Grilled a decade ago. He had a much more simple ambition.

“My goal was just to get open,” Fish says. “I was a guy that went out four or five nights a week, hanging out in bars or going to restaurants and eating out a lot and socializing. I wanted to create a place I felt comfortable in.”

Fish had spent five years running the kitchen at Johnny Mango, an Ohio City restaurant he had grown to love. But he also had a passion to start his own business and felt like the time had come to take his shot at being an entrepreneur. As he looked around the Cleveland area, he settled on Lakewood as the site for his new venture.

“There were a bunch of bars that served bar-type food, but there really wasn’t anybody focusing on a heavy-duty craft beer list,” Fish says. “Like really high-quality craft beers that were just starting to come into the market. When I say that out loud, it’s really weird because 10 years ago, you couldn’t find a craft beer in Cleveland to save your life.”

When Warren Tavern in Lakewood, one of the few places that did offer craft beers closed its doors, Fish got to work. The first location at 14718 Detroit Ave. opened a year later in September 2006 and the response was immediate and overwhelming.

“We only had 50 seats at the time and every seat was full with 20 or 30 people waiting to sit down every day,” says Fish, the restaurant’s owner and founder. “When that happened, everybody that was coming over to help part time quit their jobs and came to Melt full time.”

Today, Melt has seven locations, 400 employees and serves more than 1 million customers a year.

“I had been working on the idea for Melt for four years,” Fish says. “I thought, ‘If I don’t do it, somebody else is going to.’ I threw caution to the wind, put my pennies together and the rest is history.”

Creating an experience

The grilled cheese sandwich is the blank canvas for a fun, creative and mouth-watering selection of entrees that includes the Mighty Macaroni, the Parmageddon, the Lake Erie Monster, the Monte Cristo and The Dude Abides, among other items. You can also try the Melt Challenge.

If you can eat a sandwich comprised of three slices of grilled bread and 12 cheeses, along with a pile of fries and slaw, you win a shirt or a pint glass, a $10 gift card and Melt immortality.

“I try to be very non-traditional,” Fish says. “I never want Melt to look like any other place on Earth. I purposely designed it to be very busy and very fun, kitschy and interesting. It’s just morphed into what it is since day one.”

In addition to its food, Melt is known for its unique Northeast Ohio artifacts, photographs and artwork. The Independence location has a huge WMMS billboard, one of more than 25 signs that the legendary Cleveland radio station commissioned back in 1978. When not on display, it folds up into panels and fits in a box roughly the size of one of Melt’s tables.

“This guy stole one of the billboards out the door in its original box, took it home and put it under his bed for 15 or 20 years,” Fish says. “Then he was moving and something happened and he didn’t need it anymore, so he sold it to his brother. He put it under his bed for another couple years. Then he was hard up for money and he called me one day. He said, ‘Hey, I got your name and heard you’re a Cleveland collector. I’ve got something really big and awesome if you want to come and take a look at it.’”

Fish negotiated a price for the billboard and when he opened the location in Independence, he had a perfect place to display it, a big wall with lots of space.

“I collect things from all over the place,” Fish says. “I’ve become known as a pretty avid collector of Cleveland memorabilia, especially music-related pieces. Now that we’re expanding to different areas of the state, it’s not becoming more difficult. But I do have to scour the earth a little more.”

One of the challenges Fish faced in growing beyond the first location in Lakewood was the urge he felt to try to replicate it.

“We couldn’t open up seven Melt Lakewoods,” Fish says. “When we opened the third store in Independence in 2011, we changed the interior design. We said if we do keep expanding, we need to come up with a design. Lakewood and Cleveland Heights (the second location) are what they are.

“This store, we started thinking strategically and working with our architect. I brought in a construction manager to help us stage our openings and stage our construction and work with our design teams. If you go to any store after this one, they don’t look the same, but they are designed the same way.”

When it comes to growth, Fish doesn’t force it.

“There are plenty of stories out there of businesses that expanded too fast and went from one or two operations and someone comes to them with a boatload of money and they open 20 in a year,” Fish says.

“They burn too fast and spin out of control. I don’t want that to happen at Melt. We’re trying to have strategic growth and look regionally. Anything we can drive to within four hours and touch and feel on a daily basis.”

In addition to the first three locations, Melt now has stores in Mentor and Akron, as well as two in Columbus at Easton and Short North.

Still working hard

Fish is the face of Melt and admits that he gets recognized on the streets in and around Cleveland. But he takes tremendous pride in the team he’s been able to assemble that makes Melt go each and every day.

“Our success isn’t always going to come from me working my tail off or my regional managers,” Fish says. “It comes from store managers and our staff working intensely every day and buying into the culture. Knowing the food and knowing what our expectations are to please our guests.”

Melt follows an exhaustive training program for its employees and its managers.

“We’re learning from our past mistakes and understanding that if you hire somebody from the outside world, we need to bring them in and train them fully for eight to 12 weeks,” Fish says. “We put them in a store for three or four months so they really get fully acclimated. We still try to promote from within whenever possible, but those people need to go through the same type of management training.

“We can’t assume that they know everything. If you get promoted from within, you start back at host training again. You’re trained again as a host, you’re trained again as a server and again as a bartender, but more from the eyes of a manager. Then you get trained in your management duties.”

It’s all part of the effort to help Melt continue to be the same great experience for customers in 2016 that was in 2006.

“It’s still about serving high-quality ingredients with a high-quality staff in a fun, cool, eclectic atmosphere,” Fish says. “That’s the most important thing to us.”

How to reach: Melt Bar and Grilled, (216) 431-7760 or www.meltbarandgrilled.com