Something caught the corner of my eye while I was standing in the kitchen of Cheat’s Cheesesteak Parlor’s new brick-and-mortar location on Pecan Avenue talking to co-founders Ryan Hart and Greg Balch about the restaurant’s early days as a pop-up: A man was approaching the walk-up window.
This is going to be awkward, I thought. Does he know it’s not open yet? He looks excited. He’s going to be so let down! Did he drive far to come here or was he just passing by?
My mind ran through all the ways this scenario could go, then Balch leaned coolly out the window like he’d done this before.
“Hey man, I’m sorry. We’re not open yet,” he said. “Next Wednesday. Come back and see us.”
I cringed, waiting for the hope to drain from the man’s face and a wave of disappointment to wash over, but it didn’t — at least not as much as I expected. Instead, he perked up when Balch told him Cheat’s would start churning out cheesesteaks on Wednesday, July 13. He was just happy to hear it was opening.
Balch and Hart have been fielding a steady stream of would-be customers over the past few weeks as excitement and anticipation builds for Cheat’s, known for hosting sold-out pop-ups at local breweries and Panthers games, to open its permanent home.
Even on the street, the two told me drivers beep their horns daily and shout as they pass by the new spot, which is situated next to Villani’s Bakery and Rico’s Acai, just at the border of Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood.
“I’m like, dude, are we like The Beatles, what’s happening here? This is the craziest thing,” Hart said. “We’re just a bunch of kitchen people and bartenders.”
Hart, Balch and Hannah Smith created the concept for Cheat’s Cheesesteak Parlor while working together at The Crunkleton in Elizabeth during the pandemic — eventually bringing on fellow industry professionals Jonathan Tiernan, Tom Willoughby and chef Travis Fisher.
Though they came out of a renowned cocktail bar, these kitchen workers and bartenders have shown a talent for cultivating a different kind of buzz.
Since the first pop-up at Birdsong Brewing in November 2020, Cheat’s has amassed more than 13,000 followers on Instagram and sold more than 10,000 cheesesteaks, including chicken, vegan and the classic “Whiz Wit” — their take on the south Philadelphia icon made with certified never-frozen Black Angus top round steak, grilled onions and gooey Cheez Whiz.
That’s all before they even fire up the flat top, slide open the walk-up window and take orders from their first customers on July 13.
“I always look at people like, ‘Cheesesteaks, huh? Who would’ve thought?’” Hart said. “I had no idea it would ever turn into this viral sensation like it did.”
Once Hart, Balch and Smith decided on making cheesesteaks their focus, they pitched their idea to the partners at The Crunkleton, who agreed to invest in the business under the 1957 Hospitality Group umbrella.
The restaurant group is known for The Crunkleton, which has locations in Chapel Hill, Charlotte and a third opening in Raleigh; but will also run Rosemont Market and Wine Bar, opening this fall at Elizabeth on Seventh.
When they launched Cheat’s in November 2020, Smith was The Crunkleton’s general manager, Hart was bar manager and Balch was the executive chef. The trio’s new pop-up series, which they agreed to do only on their days off, was meant to drive a little interest in the business and cultivate a taste for Cheez Whiz while they worked on a permanent location.
The team quickly saw more than a little interest, with cheesesteak pre-orders selling out days before the pop-ups, which would then regularly sell out from walk-ups. They brought on Tiernan, Fisher, Willoughby and others to help handle the demand.
Due to their schedules at The Crunkleton, Hart said the team members couldn’t host pop-ups as frequently as they wanted, but that ended up being a blessing in disguise.
“We were held back by our other job and looking back, it’s definitely a key to our success,” Hart said. “The temptation — you rip a massive pop-up and it’s like, ‘Let’s do this again tomorrow!’ So it kind of saved us from ourselves.”
In the days and weeks between pop-ups, demand for the cheesesteaks grew. So did Cheat’s social media following, as customers waited with baited breath for the location of the next pop-up to be revealed.
Cheat’s originally planned to open permanently on Pecan Avenue in late summer 2021, but the work to renovate the former hair salon into a cheesesteak parlor, plus all the necessary permitting, site work and variances, took longer than expected.
They kept the pop-ups going in the meantime, which only continued to grow their customer base.
The pandemonium eventually caught the attention of the Carolina Panthers and Levy Restaurants, which runs concessions at Bank of America Stadium. They booked Cheat’s to cook cheesesteaks outside the stadium for a few games.
Hart said it wasn’t until they started doing the pop-ups that they realized just how many Mid-Atlantic transplants live in Charlotte. Cheez Whiz was apparently already running through the veins of the Queen City.
“So many people thanked us and told us our cheesesteaks reminded them of home and all of a sudden there was this new element that I kind of fell in love with and took very seriously, that we needed to honor the responsibility that we had to these people who grew up eating this food,” Hart said.
Creating the cheesesteak
It took Hart and Balch more than a dozen tries to get the Cheat’s cheesesteak right. Hart recalled going over to Balch’s house early on and experimenting with different cuts of meat, including A5 wagyu beef, the highest grade of the finest beef.
“That actually taught us a very important lesson because we all got super sick from eating a Cheez Whiz-and-A5 cheesesteak,” Hart said. “It was delicious, but it was just so much fat.”
They researched concepts from the North, visiting the most lauded cheesesteak spots in Philadelphia.
“You always hear ‘I came here with my father. My grandfather used to take me here on Sundays.’ There’s a lot of family camaraderie based around these concepts and we knew that very early on we wanted Cheat’s to be family-friendly,” Hart said.
The team learned that cheesesteaks taste best when their four ingredients — vegetables, bread, cheese and meat — are as balanced as possible. That includes fat and protein, Hart said. The right amount of fat in a cheesesteak won’t make you feel sick … you’ll just want another one.
But instead of slicing their meat 1.7 millimeters thick, the standard for cheesesteaks in Philadelphia, they opted for a thicker, 3-millimeter cut.
They also considered using a gourmet cheese, or making their own version of Cheez Whiz, — as is done at other local spots like JackBeagle’s — but both agreed nothing was as good as the original.
“It’s creamy and then there’s kind of a saltiness that the Whiz brings to the table,” Hart said. “It also gets down into every nook and cranny. We put it on the bottom and the top so every bite has Whiz, onions and meat.”
“Everything should be the same in every single bite from start to finish,” Balch added. “Not like a taco where you’ve gotta hit it twice from both sides to get everything.”
If Whiz isn’t your thing, however, Hart assured me that they do offer provolone in its place.
During pop-ups, Cheat’s sourced its bread from Philadelphia-based Amoroso’s Baking Company, but has since switched to New Jersey-based Liscio’s Bakery. (Hart observed that in Philly, half the cheesesteak shops use Liscio’s and the other half use Amoroso’s.)
Customers who visit the Pecan Avenue location will notice Cheat’s has kept its menu small — inspired by the business model of decades-old chains like Raleigh-based Char-Grill — with pop-up classics like the Whiz Wit, chicken cheesesteaks and a vegan version that uses Beyond meat.
However, there are also several new items, including the Italian hoagie; an all-day breakfast sandwich with taylor pork roll, egg and cheese; fries (you can top with cheesesteak); and a kids meal. Customers can also get vanilla soft-serve or vegan gluten-free Dole pineapple whip — or swirl them together with the option to add chocolate Magic Shell or sprinkles.
A new Queen
Cheat’s new 500-square-foot building was designed with a fast, casual, walk-up style of service in mind and no inside dining. Customers can watch the team prepare sandwiches and cheesesteaks through the front viewing windows, just like at the pop-ups.
Hart said they considered a larger space, but a smaller footprint made the most sense for Cheat’s business model, which relies heavily on efficiency, motion and flow to churn out cheesesteaks at high volume.
“We talked a lot early on about square footage and how many steps you need to take, efficiency, and Greg did some research on In-N-Out Burger, and their kitchens are 300 to 250 square feet,” Hart said. “That resonated with me because at The Crunkleton we have these Tobin Ellis cocktail stations where you step into them and it’s literally like a cockpit of spirits so it’s zero steps. Your output is incredible.”
Prior to securing the spot on Pecan Avenue, Balch said the team was “eyeballing Dairy Queen really hard.” The iconic shop on Central Avenue closed in the fall of 2019 after being a neighborhood fixture since the 1950s. It has since been purchased by restaurateurs Joe and Katy Kindred, who are transforming it into their newest concept, milkbread.
Balch said the decision to offer soft-serve ice cream is an ode to the hole in the market left by Dairy Queen’s departure. He hopes Cheat’s can be a similar, family-friendly draw for neighbors.
“It was a huge part of the neighborhood,” Balch said. “We kind of have the opportunity to be like, ‘Hey, we can be the new Dairy Queen.’ Come get a cheesesteak and a cone and hopefully one day, those kids will bring their kids.”
“We can fill that niche more than try to replace the magic that Dairy Queen was to the neighborhood,” Hart added.
Judging by the demand they’ve seen while working in the space, the neighborhood is more than ready to welcome Cheat’s with open arms … and mouths.
“Everybody is saying that day one, they’re going to be here. Everybody. I don’t know how we don’t sell out,” Balch said.
“Well, we have a pretty big walk-in. We tried to plan for war,” Hart responded. “But really, we’re so grateful that anybody cares. We keep pinching ourselves … It’s like we started with a lemonade stand and, you know, started from the bottom now we here.”
They’re here, and now they have better news for anyone approaching their window: We’re open.
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