The idea of selling grilled cheese sandwiches on Pearl Street has almost certainly been thrown around a lot of dorms and college houses, but having the creativity, experience and connections do it right takes more than a late-night craving and a griddle.
Enter Peter Waters.
Having worked in the tech industry for more than a decade, Waters entered the Boulder restaurant world in 2011 with zero experience, but as a regular diner on Pearl Street, he came to understand what the community was seeking.
"Anybody can figure out how to run a restaurant, it just takes some time and some guidance, but it takes a lot more time and investment to figure out your audience," he said. "I always joke that I had the ultimate customer experience in that I was experiencing Dave Query, Joe Romano, and Brian Dayton's restaurants as a customer and studying them without knowing I was studying them."
That's why he believes T/aco, his first restaurant opened in 2011, worked so well, and why he, along with many restaurateurs in Boulder, believe in his latest venture — Ruthie's Boardwalk Social — a gourmet grilled cheese shop that opened earlier this month in the old Salvaggio's Deli location at 14th and Pearl streets — will do the same.
"Peter has a knack for food that's a great fit for the community," said Eric Skokan, owner of the Black Cat Farm Table Bistro . "He's really figured out a good model for this kind of thing and has done it in a well-thought out way."
The idea for Ruthie's was a simple one. Waters recognized there was a hole in the market for quick, affordable food on Pearl Street and as he racked his brain for what that would look like, he found himself going back to his childhood summers spent on the Jersey Shore.
"Growing up grilled cheese was my Grandmother Ruthie's go-to meal on the beach and we wanted to go with something that has that boardwalk feel," he said. "I'm also one of the owners at T/aco, which was my first restaurant experience, so I was tried to take as much as I could from a taqueria without trying to re-invent the wheel, and if you look at an American version of a taco a grilled cheese is about as close as you're going to get."
The Mac Daddy, for example, comes with mac and cheese. The Italian caprese comes with mozzarella, tomatoes and a pesto spread. The Mahalo comes with gouda, white cheddar, ham, and pineapple. To complete the boardwalk feel, Ruthie's also sells tomato soup, french fries and soft serve ice cream. Also, like a taco, each sandwich can all be made within a couple of minutes and costs roughly $7.
With no front of house staff, Waters said he is able to pay his employees in the kitchen much better than a traditional restaurant without raising prices for customers. And, with an mobile ordering app Waters expects to launch on the first of the year, customers also will be able to order for pickup and skip the lines.
Thus far, Ruthie's has been a hit. Despite opening on Oct. 10, when it was about 50 degrees outside, Waters said there were people standing in line under their umbrellas, braving the cold for a grilled cheese and a cup of soup. Ever since, Ruthie's has averaged 200 sandwiches a day.
"There are just no good, cheap lunch options on Pearl Street for people who work around here," said Alex Jacobson, an agent at the Re/Max of Boulder just off Pearl Street. "This is super convenient and I love grilled cheeses. It's comfort food. I had an idea to do a gourmet grilled cheese food truck, but I guess Peter beat me to the punch."
Even other chefs around town have lined up to work with Ruthie's.
Steve Redzikowski , head chef at Oak at Fourteenth, located just across the street from Ruthie's, has agreed to do a special meatball grilled cheese for the month of November.
"We did a taco with him for T/aco and Peter does the classics really well," Redzikowski said. "This is a great idea for a restaurant and it's nice to have the (lawn in front of the Boulder County Courthouse) right here. We're excited about it."
Each month after Redzikowski's meatball grilled cheese, a new local chief will make his or herown version of a grilled cheese.
"Everyone's been super excited," Waters said. "I think they're just excited for something new, the price point were hitting, the flavor profiles we're doing. It's new on so many fronts."