Employees Living 'The Cheese Life' at Cheesies

By Robert Martin and Kevin Martinez

Posted: Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014

Business owner Chris Johnston proved that a simple idea can become something more simply by believing in it. Johnston is the owner of Cheesies Pub & Grub in Lakeview.

“I was at lunch with a coworker,” Johnston said, “She said, ‘I wish there was a place that made just grilled cheese sandwiches,’ so I said, ‘There’s not, but there’s going to be one.’

”Just three weeks after coming up with the idea of the grilled cheese joint, Johnston decided to quit his job and pursue his business plan.

Four months later, Cheesies was born.

Johnston admitted that he took a leap of faith after leaving leaving his job.

“It was a situation where I didn’t really have the money to do it, but I knew I had the idea,” Johnston said.

After rolling the dice, Johnston had no choice but to make it work.

“I opened up a bunch of new credit cards, emptied out my 401k, maxed out all the credit cards, emptied out my bank account and I opened the doors with zero cash left and $500 spread across six different credit cards,” said Johnston.

After only nine months, Cheesies doubled in size after absorbing the space which was occupied by a restaurant that was next door to them.

Some of the early success was because of the simple, yet effective menu. Johnston said he created the majority of the menu the night he came up with the idea. He stated that about 90-percent of the present-day menu was devised that same night.

There are 11 sandwiches on the menu, all of which are served with a dipping sauce. Some sandwiches can be straightforward. “The Original,” has American cheese and Merkt’s cheddar cheese on Texas toast. It is served with a tomato soup dipping sauce. This sandwich is perfect for those that like the traditional style grilled cheese.

For those that like to change things up a bit, there is the, “Tenderizer.” This sandwich has cheddar cheese, mozzarella cheese, hot sauce, bacon, fried chicken tenders and Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce, on Texas toast. “The Tenderizer,” is served with a ranch dipping sauce.

Johnston said he plans to revisit the menu and add some things after opening up their new location in Wicker Park.

Renovations have worked out well for Johnston thus far. One of the biggest changes he made to his initial business plan was bringing a bar-like atmosphere to Cheesies.

“Originally, the whole concept was about sandwiches,” said Johnston, “I saw a big gap between dinner and late night dining, so to bridge the gap we built the bar.

”There are more changes on the way too.

Cheesies’ Wicker Park location will feature french fry bar attached to it named, “Whiskey Business." Johnston said patrons can enter through Whiskey Business and still order from Cheesies menu because both kitchens will be combined.

Because the building will have multiple stories, there will be a staircase that leads to the second floor. That level will have a seated area for about 70 people, and a rooftop outdoor patio that can fit about 180 people. Johnston plans to have a “dinner and a movie” type event on the rooftop.

Regardless of what new innovations Johnston brings to Cheesies, he still wants the grilled cheese sandwiches to be the main attraction.

“We don’t try to get rich off of liquor,” Johnston said, “we’re going to make a couple of bucks along the way, but we want to highlight our grilled cheese.”

When asked what his favorite sandwich on the menu was, Johnston had a difficult time deciding.

He eventually narrowed it down to the “Popper.” It features cheddar cheese, cream cheese, cheddar sauce, fresh jalapeño slices and bacon on sourdough bread. He also said that likes to add chorizo to the sandwich.

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