Not only does The Melt’s patent-pending Smart Box solve one of the grilled cheese chain’s most vexing problems—maintaining the ideal temperature, texture and mouthfeel of its signature sandwiches during transport to catering customers. The invention may also create a lucrative sideline business for this 15-unit San Francisco-based company, selling its technology to other operators who face similar deliver issues.

Catering is a fertile field for fast casual restaurant chains, especially at lunch. The Melt estimates that catering revenue can account for 20-25 percent of overall sales in the fast casual segment.

However, some foods travel better than others. Chipotle Mexican Grill, for instance, wraps every burrito it sells in foil, making its “Burrito Box” catering option a no-brainer. Pizza delivery methods keep the product warm, but texture can suffer. Ditto for burgers. Fried food items can also be tricky to deliver. But grilled cheese sandwiches present an even greater delivery challenge. They quickly turn soggy and rubbery once they lose heat, a process that takes about seven minutes, according to company tests. This minimal shelf life is why The Melt formed a team of in-house engineers and outside consultants to develop a food delivery method that would keep the chain’s sandwiches in optimal condition during delivery.

“Turning to its Silicon Valley roots, the company developed advanced technology to reinvent food delivery with their new Smart Box—the food industry's first catering delivery system using sophisticated software to perfectly balance humidity, heat, and air circulation,” The Melt says in a media release.

“The Smart Box design dramatically improves catered food quality and redefines today's food delivery experience.” There are plenty of hot box options that work well for catering situations, but none performed exactly as The Melt wanted. "We just couldn't find an existing catering delivery solution that could do the job, so we invented one ourselves,” says The Melt c.e.o Jonathan Kaplan.

The company says its Smart Box unit keeps grilled cheese sandwiches in peak condition for 30 minutes or longer. It’s a tricky job—the temperature and humidity must be controlled so that a sandwich’s bread remains crispy while the cheese component doesn’t get too hot or too cold. It took four iterations of the Smart Box to reach peak efficiency. “It’s like a sous-vide immersion circulator that uses air instead of water,” Kaplan says of the final product.

The chain didn’t waste any time putting this device to work. The Melt has already launched catering at its four Francisco locations, and will be adding it to its 11 other stores in California later this year. There’s a $50 minimum per catering order, so catering revenue should boost the chain’s bottom line. But the bigger opportunity may come from licensing its technology to foodservice equipment manufacturers or to other operators.

"We're going to focus on our initial goal: taking care of our catering clients," says The Melt operations v.p. Greg Hernandez. "But we feel like there are other uses for it down the road. We put pizza and hamburgers in it, and it did an amazing job."

The Melt estimates that its Smart Box device costs around $200. It’s a small price to pay for a device that enables operators to give catering and delivery customers the same caliber of food they would get if eating in their restaurants.