He’s been a juvenile probation officer and a private investigator. He’s sold insurance, worked in the gas and oil fields, and served as a security guard.
Today, though, he’s making grilled cheese sandwiches to earn a living, but that’s because Thomas Gilson wants to.
The 30-year-old Gilson graduated from Wheeling Jesuit University with a criminal justice degree four years following his 2002 commencement from Wheeling Central Catholic High School, and he did what he thought he was supposed to do – move away from Wheeling. For two years he resided in Cannonsburg, Pa., before moving to Greenville, S.C., to continue his career working with juveniles on the wrong side of the law. When the economy crashed late in 2008, Gilson was laid off and forced to seek whatever employment he could find, and that quest continued following his return to his hometown. In 2010, Gilson did what he thought he would never do.
He moved home to Wheeling.
“I came back, and I had been working construction for about 2.5 years at that time and working like 80 to 90 hours a week, and I didn’t want to do that forever,” Gilson explained. “And I’ve always wanted to be self-employed, and I had tried it a few times before, but it really never worked out that well because those jobs weren’t what I really wanted to be doing.
“So I quit a good-paying job in the gas and oil industry to become self-employed again and be broke,” he said with a laugh. “And then I got married (to wife Tricia), and we’re going to have a baby.”
This time, though, making grilled cheese sandwiches is exactly what he wants to do. He and his wife had made a trip to Colorado for the “Blues and Brews” festival, and they stumbled upon a small food cart with a lady serving up – you guessed it – grilled cheese sandwiches.
“I thought it was brilliant, and we went back the next day and got something and it was good. That’s where the seed was planted,” Gilson said. “I’ve liked to cook since I was a kid. I used to make our family dinners, and I really enjoyed it, and then it just kind of hit me; I’m going to try grilled cheese sandwiches. So I bought a cart, and I started at the festivals here in Wheeling, and we did pretty well, and there was a really good response.
“We also had our Timeline liked a lot on Facebook, so I decided to keep going with it. We talked with Main Street Bank about upgrading to a food truck, and they financed the loan so I could expand,” he explained. “So we found this truck and took a trip to Richmond, Va., to take a look at it, and then we towed it back.”
Gilson not only expanded his business by buying the food truck, but he also decided to rent the corner lot at 14th and Main streets to attract the downtown crowd for lunch. Each day he and his 25-year-old sister, Jennifer, open for business at 10:30 a.m., and they work the food truck until 2:30 p.m. Customers can phone-in or text-in their orders at 304-780-4858.
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“We started in October with my small setup, and yeah it was pretty cold sometimes,” he said with a smirk. “It wasn’t really that bad, but I got pretty cold a few times because I was the one in here for several hours each day. Then when it really wound down in January, people were staying inside because of the bitter cold, so that’s when I decided to shut it down for a couple of months until the temperatures got bearable again.
“We returned in mid-March, and we’ve been here since. It’s been going well, but business is business. We’ve had busy days and busy weeks and slow days and slow weeks,” Gilson continued. “That’s just the nature of the business. We really never know how it’s going to go each day, but overall it’s been pretty successful so far.”
Have no worries because Gilson will continue participating in the Friendly City’s festival season, and he will own a presence at this weekend’s Wheeling Feeling Chili Cook-Off at Heritage Port. He also revealed his plan to debut a brand new sandwich selection during this year’s Arts Fest set for June 20t on the corner of 16th and Market streets.
If he is not an event vendor at one or two of the many events, though, he will open at the eatery’s corner location.
“The business plan, honestly, is to make a living right now selling sandwiches and doing something I love to do,” he admitted. “I like making sure that people get quality food, and that’s why I use all Amish cheeses and local bread, and as far as the toppings, I like to think I pile them up pretty high. Some people may think our prices are a little high, but I honestly think our customers are getting their value’s worth.
“As far as the future is concerned, I’ve expanded once already by purchasing this food truck and adding a lot more food to the menu,” he said. “That’s the goal – to continue building the business by taking some small steps to see where it goes. Down the road, maybe 10 years from now, a restaurant may be great, maybe franchise this business model out and just go food trucks across the country.”
Gilson’s menu includes the Classic Grilled Cheese, the choice to build your own sandwich, and seven different specialty melts. The Cheese Melt also features additional items and side dishes like the friend pickles, mac n’ cheese bites, French fries, and chocolate-covered pretzels. During a busy week, The Cheese Melt serves as many as 150 sandwiches during the work week and many more during the festival hours.
There are slow weeks, too, and while Gilson has witnessed growth in the downtown during his short stint on the corner that once featured Mountain Mama’s, he expressed hope for more businesses and more people.
“I don’t think the downtown is ‘there’ yet, but I know we’re moving in the right direction. What’s hard to tell at this point is how long it’s going to take,” Gilson said. “But once the festival season kicks in, we’ll have a lot more business because there’s so much more visibility during that time of year.
“I have seen a lot of folks at least trying to do something in the downtown, and I think that’s a first in my lifetime,” he continued. “The “Show of Hands’ is very cool because local businesses have the opportunity to present at those events. Even if you don’t win, you still get all of that visibility, and that always helps a business.
“But hey, here I am doing what I love and doing it in downtown Wheeling, and we’re surviving and getting a lot of support,” Gilson added. “There’s a lot of people in Wheeling right now who are hungry for success, and I hope that hunger includes The Cheese Melt along the way.”