Comfort Food Finds A Focused Business Niche

By Heather McPherson Orlando Sentinel.

From one main ingredient, several Central Florida food entrepreneurs are building businesses that cater to consumers' need for comfort and nostalgia.

With menus focused on meatballs, gourmet marshmallows and grilled-cheese sandwiches, the business model may seem to go against a rising push for diverse menus covering a variety of tastes and cuisines. Success, it seems, is tied to how this small group of business owners are reinventing their one-note edible wonders beyond bakeries and coffee shops.

"It works when the restaurant mission is based on the familiar and the concept is simple," said Isabella Morgia di Vicari, co-owner of The Meatball Shoppe in Orlando and a longtime Central Florida caterer and restaurateur.

"We are a nontraditional restaurant with our roots in traditional cuisine," she said. "And for our customers it makes sense. From the day we opened [in January] we weren't a fad or a trend. We were doing what we do well, just focusing on one of the most versatile elements of our repertoire."

These restaurants are enjoying the ride at the top of a consumer trend, said Warren Solochek, an analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm.

"It may be working for now, but to have a limited menu is really difficult," he said. "The appeal can melt away and at one point they may need to consider reinventing themselves."

Jenn and Nathan Clark's Wondermade gourmet marshmallow store in Sanford has taken the ubiquitous white pillows of edible fluff to new heights with flavors such as bourbon, mint chocolate chip and Neapolitan.

Not only have they been noticed by local sweets lovers and chefs, but the marshmallows earned a coveted spot in the Martha Stewart American Made online shop.

It started when Nathan Clark gave his wife a candy thermometer and recipe for marshmallows one Christmas. By 2012 they were selling online and in local gourmet stores. They took a leap of faith and opened their storefront in 2014. The space enabled them to get their product to more consumers while providing a place to keep up production for online orders.

NPD's Solochek says stores such as Wondermade have hit on "something new that is difficult to make at home." Marshmallows are not impossible to make at home, but the degree of difficulty comes into play.

In addition to splashable hot sugar liquid beaten until tripled in volume, the home cook is left with a sink full of dirty dishes. A toasted cheese sandwich, on the other hand, is easier to craft and requires little more than a skillet and a spatula.

But at Toasted, which is opening a second store this spring in Lake Nona, the ooey-gooey marriage of cheese and bread goes beyond the sandwiches our youth.

When he realized he wasn't ready for retirement, founder Jeffrey Yarmuth channeled his restless energy into creating a new fast-casual brand that elevated the iconic grilled-cheese sandwich.

Inspired by several New York eateries that focused on simple menus that reimagined familiar foods, Yarmuth and his daughter, Megan, combined his restaurant operational experience with her background in food and beverage marketing and in 2013 opened Toasted in Winter Park.

The menu offers 10 grilled-cheese choices, plus burgers and salads. The oversize periodic table of cheese on the wall leaves no doubt what to order.

"You can take calculated risks with your menu," said Megan Yarmuth. "But to succeed, make sure you have a few straightforward dishes as well. For us it's the 101," a cheddar and tomato sandwich.

"I fought to get our fig and goat on the menu," she said. The blend of cheese, basil, honey and mission figs is now one of the most popular menu items.

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