By 9:30 a.m., employees of I Heart Mac & Cheese are pulling into The Mark Athens parking deck getting ready to prep ingredients for the store's 11 a.m. open time.
Located next to Homewood Suites, I Heart Mac & Cheese in Athens is the fifth franchise of the company, and it will celebrate its grand opening on Wednesday, Nov. 20.
The new restaurant offers made-to-order and customizable macaroni and cheese as well as salads and grilled cheeses. It also accommodates all types of diets, including vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free and dairy-free options.
In 2016 chef Michael Blum opened the first I Heart Mac & Cheese in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Inspired by the positive feedback he received about his award-winning recipes, he decided to open a business where he could share his culinary art.
The comfort food connoisseur
“If you’re in college and you have finals, you’re stressed and you want something yummy that’s warm that will make you feel comfortable, go for the traditional mac and cheese,” Davis said.
With over eight cheeses available to melt on top of regular, whole wheat or gluten free pasta, the classic dish can also be topped with a protein, like bacon or ground beef and unlimited veggies.
“We want [I Heart Mac & Cheese] to be comfortable and warming,” Grotz said. ”Most of these kids are away from home and a McDonald’s cheeseburger isn’t very heartfelt.”
The stationary student
The new restaurant is expecting a majority of its customers to be college students at the University of Georgia and has also partnered with local delivery services like Uber Eats to serve students who don't have the time to attend a traditional restaurant. A quick bite, like the grilled cheese sandwich, can also be prepared as a ready-to-go order on the I Heart Mac & Cheese app.
The fast-paced family
As a parent of elementary, middle and high school students, Grotz said she understands the struggle of maintaining a full-time job and managing her children. She hopes I Heart Mac & Cheese will also appeal to busy parents attempting to provide their families with a quick and easy dinner. With a variety of options, including soups, salads and sandwiches, parents and children can make their own choices about which individual entrees they want to order. Grotz also plans to attract this demographic with a “Kids Eat Free Night” on Mondays.
“It’s a perfect concept that can satisfy everyone: a mom and her kids,” Davis said. “You don’t ever really grow out of it.”
The social sharer
Although the restaurant is designed to get customers in and out fast, the 1,700 square-foot space has a capacity for up to 50 people to dine. Grotz also said the restaurant plans to implement outdoor patio seating in the spring. I Heart Mac & Cheese offers a shareable tater tot base which can be topped with bacon and cheese sauce.
The ambitious athlete
Located in close proximity with fitness studios at The Mark like OrangeTheory Fitness and purvelo cycling, Davis said I Heart Mac & Cheese can also cater to athletes who need adequate amounts of carbohydrates to perform. For this population, she recommends pasta or a grilled cheese sandwich.
The vegan variation
While one of the main ingredients in traditional macaroni and cheese is an animal product, the restaurant’s vegan cheese sauce offers a way for those who abstain from consuming animal products to make an entree other than a salad. Grotz, who has a dairy allergy, said the restaurant strives to include options for vegans and vegetarians other than just beans and “boring” vegetables. I Heart Mac & Cheese offers Beyond Meat, a plant-based protein patty, in addition to gluten-free bread and pasta for their customers with allergies and restrictions.
“The mainstream population may even give [vegan options] a try and find out that it may not be as bad as they thought,” Grotz said.