Vision Scotland: Toastie quine is doing fine

Aberdeen, Monday, 28th March 2016''Pictured is former oil worker Mechelle Clark, 34,  who was made redundant twice and couldn't get a job after going for 60 interviews. She has launched Aberdeen, and possibly Scotland's first cafe dedicated to toasties.''Picture by Michal Wachucik / Abermedia
Aberdeen, Monday, 28th March 2016''Pictured is former oil worker Mechelle Clark, 34, who was made redundant twice and couldn't get a job after going for 60 interviews. She has launched Aberdeen, and possibly Scotland's first cafe dedicated to toasties.''Picture by Michal Wachucik / Abermedia

YOU will have heard of the lipstick effect. The theory that when faced with harsher economic circumstances, consumers will forgo big-ticket luxury goods but will still stump up a little extra for a pricier lipstick in order to make themselves feel a little better in straitened times.

The theory is still disputed as lipstick sales can be hard to correlate and much of the evidence is anecdotal, but perhaps we could rename it “the cheese toastie effect”?

Mechelle Clark opened Melt, her small grilled cheese sandwich shop, in Aberdeen in March 2016. Although situated away from the main drag of food outlets found in the city centre likes of Union Square – she says: “We simply couldn’t afford that.” – the new business was an almost immediate success.

Soon queues were trailing out the door of Melt’s Holburn Street premises. And the new business got an early publicity boost when Nicola Sturgeon nipped in with a television news crew and was filmed making a toastie for herself. And – don’t look now! – even Hollywood legend Donald Sutherland nipped in for a cheesy treat while filming in Aberdeen.

Early next year, Clark is to expand on her brand with the more centrally located – and significantly larger – Melt 2, taking shape on Belmont Street, which will mix an expanded takeaway menu with an “all-cheese restaurant”. Thought to be the first of its kind in Scotland and certainly an ambitious venture on any scale.

But how did Melt manage to get so successful so quickly? It would appear to be a combination of factors, with the most unlikely of beginnings.

The 34-year-old, like so many in Aberdeen, used to work in the oil and gas sector. Her role involved “a combination of recruitment, training and competency.”

However, after nearly ten years in the industry, Clark was made redundant in September 2015, and while she quickly found re-employment in the field, she found herself facing another redundancy less than a year later in June 2015.

Eventually, tired of dragging herself to a succession of almost 60 unsuccessful job interviews, Clark decided she wanted to indulge her fondness for fromage.

She had some experience of “cheffing” and also running a baking business, so hoped “that my passion and interest in all things culinary would be enough to make a success of it”.

Her redundancy money from the oil and gas concern was not enough to start a business from scratch, so Clark applied for a start-up loan from the British Business Bank and got £20,000 on 6 per cent interest.

Due to the success of Melt, she is now an ambassador for the state-owned economic development bank established by the UK Government with the aim of increasing the supply of credit to small and medium-sized enterprises as well as providing business advice services.

Unusually, for a sandwich shop, Melt’s busiest days are Friday through Sunday when Clark says the clientele consists of tourists and people nursing hangovers looking for the kind of comfort that can only be had from a cheese toastie.

Even though the shop does a brisk weekday lunchtime trade thanks to local office workers, its location in Holburn is a little way off the main beaten track for food outlets in Aberdeen, but Clark says “a hell of a lot cheaper for it. We could do with being a lot more central, but number-two will take care of that.”

One possible reason for the Melt success is the straightforward brevity of the menu. There is no endless litany of increasingly unlikely toastie combinations to scroll through. There is plain cheese, cheese and ham, and a few that allow you to mix macaroni, haggis and bacon –
although pulled pork and chilli are also available if you’re confident about not spilling molten mixture down the front of your clothes.

Clark says that keeping the selection small but beautifully formed was a conscious decision. “The idea was to start small and do it really well by specialising in one or two products.”

And while £5 may seem a bit expensive for a cheese toastie, it’s not really expensive for one of these bumper delights, as many of Melt’s satisfied customers would attest. Hence, the cheese toastie effect.

After being open for six months, Clark added brownies to the Melt menu – “That’s now become a full-time business in itself, Melt-Sweet, with it’s own Deliveroo service and full-time baker.”

The business also supplies cafe-bar-restaurant hybrid Rye & Soda in central Aberdeen and The Park Shop in Deeside. According to the entrepreneur, this is where many loyal Melt customers drive to pick up their favourite sweet treats, “because parking is such an issue in Aberdeen”.

Even so, Clark found that the core business was outgrowing its premises. She says: “Queues went out the door, people wanted seating and we just didn’t have the space.”

Indeed, it had been that way from the start. It has become something of a local business legend how Melt completely sold out of toasties within two hours of opening and Clark found herself having to turn customers away on its very first day. “Well, that’s true,” she laughs, “but it’s because of the fact that we didn’t order enough bread – it’s been quite a steep learning curve – but I’m happy with the legend as it is, I’ll take it.”

Now the business sources all of its bread from non-profit outfit The Breadmaker on Aberdeen’s Rosemount Viaduct and puts in a weekly order of 100-120 loaves – “Although it can rise to 200 loaves during particularly busy weeks.”.

Meanwhile, shopping close to home is also the order of the day when it comes to Melt’s meat, which is courtesy of Ellon’s Aberdeenshire Larder, and eggs, from local farmers.

Perhaps it was this ethos that compelled Nicola Sturgeon to drop in and try her hand at toastie making – a culinary and current affairs event covered by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News, which was handy because Clark wasn’t there to see it herself. “I was at a street food festival in Strathaven,” she says ruefully.

Missing a visit from the First Minister is one thing but missing one from your favourite film star is quite another. “I love Donald Sutherland, Don’t Look Now is one of my favourite films; running around Venice in a trench coat and a bad perm – perfect,” Clark sighs.

Sutherland was in Aberdeen filming scenes for Danny Boyle’s true-crime TV series Trust, in which the Hollywood 
veteran played John Paul Getty. Apparently intrigued by the queues he saw snaking out the door, the star chose to investigate. “It’s become a running joke,” Clark admits. “The staff say: ‘Let us know when you’re away again so we can get some 
celebrities in’.’’

But the entrepreneur may yet have her chance to meet some celebs if the ambitious sequel Melt 2 is as successful as the original. For the new venture Clark applied for a £25,000 loan from British Business Bank’s sister company DSL, which helps start-ups and established businesses.

Clark also started an online crowdfunding page on Indiegogo to raise 
investment for the new venture and is currently working towards raising another £25,000. There are a range of perks offered for investments of £20 up to £2,000. “It’s a good thing to do,” she notes. “It makes people feel a lot more invested in your business.

Situated over two storeys, Melt 2 will be a 70s-styled kitchen and takeaway on ground level – “All Formica and G-Plan furniture” – while upstairs will be The Living Room restaurant. Clark says that the eatery will feature “fake wood and stone, and flock wall paper and punchbowls with the little glasses hanging off the sides. Wayne Hemingway is very much the influence here; we will have ducks on the wall at a jaunty angle.”

It sounds more than a little like the retro-futuristic film set design of Ben Wheatley’s adaptation of JG Ballard’s High-Rise. “That certainly is a beautiful looking film,” agrees Clark. “We want it to be an immersive experience”.

She adds that adopting the 1970s look for her ambitious next step is far from an arbitrary decision.

“When I was researching, I found out that the Breville toasted sandwich maker was introduced to the UK in 1973 and that became my point of reference,” Clark explains. “Not everyone will get it, your average punter will say it looks very 60s or very 80s and miss it.

“There can be a lot of money just thrown at places in Aberdeen and a lot of them just look very similar – bare walls, restored metal fixtures, industrial lights – 
this will look more like your granny’s living room,” she laughs.

“The business has always lent itself to us doing more,” says Clark, who is already “well-ahead” on her restaurant menu before she picks up the keys to the Belmont Street premises early in the New Year.

The Melt 2 takeaway is due to open at the end of February with the restaurant to follow by late March. “Cheese is the theme. That should make us stand out. We’ll be specialising in our knowledge of a foodstuff that – like chocolate – you can put into loads of things.

“Given the 70s theme there will be fondue – with Gruyère and Emmental – into which you can dip bread, Toulouse sausages or cornichons.”

However, the plan is to include some old favourites with a twist, such as macaroni cheese with the unexpected addition of lobster, and deep-fried toasties, served with a marinara sauce. Nevertheless, Clark will not divulge all her secrets before opening, perhaps because it’s still a work in progress.

“I’ve done the menu and its changed already,” she admits. “The specials will allow us to be fancier, but I don’t want to start culturally appropriating food.”

Very wise. You don’t want to be too rash embarking on such a ground-breaking culinary venture, these things have to be done Caerphilly.

This article appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of Vision Scotland. A digital version can be found here.