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Portsmouth's newest restaurant is Cheese Louise: Story behind … – Foster's Daily Democrat

PORTSMOUTH — In just over four years, a trio of best friends from northern New Hampshire have turned a summer gig crafting artisan grilled cheese sandwiches into a multi-million-dollar business, a venture that has now expanded into the Port City. 
New Year’s Eve marked the official opening for Cheese Louise in downtown Portsmouth, the latest eatery in a city culinary scene known for its thousands of restaurant seats and array of dining options. Portsmouth is the second year-round location, joining Cheese Louise’s four-season spot in Portland, Maine, as well as its seasonal locations on the Kancamagus Highway in Conway and in North Conway, in addition to multiple food trucks.
“Portsmouth, to us, is just a really exciting next step,” said Bryce Harrison, a 25-year-old co-founder of Cheese Louise. “It was a natural next step to Portland. A lot of the shops that are successful in Portland will have a second sister location here. We really liked the idea of being on Congress Street and just felt like this size and space was perfect for the next step.” Do we know other Portland businesses with sister locations in Portsmouth?
Hailing from the North Conway area, Cheese Louise was dreamt up in 2018 by Harrison and his high school friends James Gaudreault and Ian Lubkin when they were all still studying in college. After all three watched the 2014 food truck-centric movie “Chef” starring Jon Favreau, Scarlett Johansson and Sofia Vergara, they caught up on a video call and asked themselves a simple question: Why can’t we do the same thing?
Gaudreault, then a University of Vermont student, Harrison, who was at the University of British Columbia, and Lubkin, a University of New Mexico student, bought a food truck the following summer break. After bouncing ideas off Harrison’s father, who has made a career in the restaurant industry, they settled on selling grilled cheese. They hit the road in June 2018, planning for the journey to last one summer and nothing more.
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So, why grilled cheese? “It’s something that’s simple enough that it doesn’t take a lot of background in the culinary industry to do it really well, and it’s really easy to train people on,” Harrison said.
Seven days each week, the friends worked 12-hour days, eventually finishing their summer being able to pay off the truck and each head back to school with a profit. 
Gaudreault, a civil engineering major, Harrison, an economics and international affairs student, and Lubkin, who was studying computer engineering and philosophy, got together the following Christmas break and reminisced about the food truck experience. As the school year progressed in 2019, they ignored well-intentioned advice to start looking for internships, sold their food truck and bought two new custom-manufactured food trailers from Georgia. 
That summer, with their siblings and friends in tow to assist them, they traveled throughout New England with their two trailers, selling grilled cheese sandwiches at music festivals, fairs and a World War II reenactment. The following summer, despite the coronavirus pandemic canceling the weddings and events their food trucks had booked, the friends expanded their business and opened two restaurants, first in Conway, then in North Conway. The Cheese Louise team grew to 30 employees, and in the fall of 2020, the food trucks got back on the road. 
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“Instead of just three guys and a food truck, we now had a two food truck operation, a kitchen and were actually employing team members for the first time,” Gaudreault said. 
Cheese Louise’s growth only continued. Aspiring to open a year-round restaurant, the three began searching for commercial space in Portland in winter 2021, eventually signing a five-year lease in the Old Port and opening there. In six weeks, Gaudreault, the “low-maintenance maintenance guy” with a knack for fixer-upper projects, built out the restaurant, and the final refrigerator was installed the day the store opened. 
In just a few years, three guys with a grilled cheese food truck and a vision not stretching past the summertime now owned several food trucks and three restaurants, despite having no restaurant management or ownership experience. 
“It was when we made this decision, signing the five-year lease, where we were like, ‘This is a commitment moving forward,’” Lubkin said of the Portland store.
The menu has expanded to include grilled cheese sandwiches with lobster, barbecue pulled pork, oven roasted turkey and typical Thanksgiving fixings, bacon, tomatoes, pesto, shredded sweet potatoes and more.
And according to the restaurant’s marketing manager Ella Chandler, Cheese Louise’s offerings have been a hit. Over the last year prior to opening in Portsmouth, across its dining, takeout and catering sales Cheese Louise has brought in more than $2 million in revenue. 
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Harrison reflected on the growth of Cheese Louise four-and-a-half years since it opened its initial food truck, particularly the skyrocketing profits seen during the pandemic.
“We had people driving three or four hours just for lunch because it was a weird time when gas was super cheap, people had nothing to do and just wanted to get out of the house,” he said. “Everyone had been locked up in quarantine but just wanted an excuse to get out and do something. I think word of mouth and social media spread the word really quickly that this funky grilled cheese place with socially distanced seating on this beautiful highway was open and made for a great day trip.”
To form a triangle of sorts between Portland and the North Conway area, the trio set out to find vacant commercial space in downtown Portsmouth. Working with realtor Bill Mouflouze, they found 76 Congress St., which was most recently occupied by Fresh House Cafe and Restaurant, a healthy eatery serving organic dishes that opened in November 2020 but closed last August.
The three signed a lease for the space in the fall. Most nights in the lead-up to Cheese Louise’s opening in Portsmouth, Gaudreault slept inside the Congress Street storefront after spending his day preparing the space for occupancy. Tools were strewn about the empty store, though Gaudreault called the work in progress ahead of the opening his “happy place.” 
“It’s been really exciting to explore the area and just walk out the front door to check out all the shops,” Gaudreault said. 
On New Year’s Eve, Cheese Louise gave out free grilled cheese sandwiches to its first 100 Portsmouth customers, drawing a line of customers, and the business is looking to partner with local nonprofits and community groups for its regular “Cheesin’ for a Reason” initiative. 
Whenever Cheese Louise has a special, $5 from each special order is donated to a designated local organization. In the past year, the business has donated close to $20,000 to various groups through the initiative, per Chandler.
Still in the first half of their 20s, Gaudreault, Harrison and Lubkin have bypassed the traditional post-graduate route and averted finding careers in their respective fields of study for a more creative — and tasty — endeavor.
Not bad for a group that didn’t plan to sling sandwiches for more than one summertime in college.
“They complement each other so well,” said Cheese Louise’s Portland and Portsmouth store general manager Gianna Giordano of the business’ co-founders.