A Wheeling food truck takes a childhood favorite to the streets.

Thomas Gilson was tired of working for other people. He has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and had spent time as a probation officer, but decided it wasn’t for him. Then he worked construction. The pay was better, but not enough to justify the 90-hour workweeks and nights away from home. So in 2013, he quit to devote his time to grilled cheese sandwiches.

He got the idea from a trip he and his wife Tricia had taken to a festival in Telluride, Colorado, where they saw a woman selling the childhood favorite from a booth. “I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen,” Gilson says. He had no culinary experience outside of cooking for family and friends but, back home, he started experimenting in his kitchen with different combinations of bread and cheese as Tricia took notes of the various successes and failures.

He bought a small trailer, about the size of a hotdog cart, and began hawking sandwiches at festivals around Wheeling. The enterprise, which Gilson dubbed The Cheese Melt, showed promise. The next year he upgraded to a larger trailer with a full kitchen set-up and parked the rig in downtown Wheeling. That didn’t work the way he’d hoped, however. “In downtown Wheeling, you’ve got the same people down there every single day. They knew I was going to be there, so there was no sense of urgency,” he says.

In 2016 he began moving his operation from place to place each day. This, coupled with The Cheese Melt’s ever-growing social media following, has led to a steady stream of customers clamoring for his “grown-up grilled cheeses.”

Diners can build their own sandwiches from a list of top-notch ingredients: nine kinds of cheese, four choices of meats, and nine fruit and vegetable toppings. But Gilson’s 10 specialty melts are the crowd favorites. Try the Beale Street Melt, topped with both hot pepper and gorgonzola cheese, bacon, golden delicious apple slices, and kale. Or, for something with an international flair, order the Taco Melt with chipotle cheese, taco meat, red onion, and tomatoes.

Gilson has big plans for this business—he plans to grow a fleet of Cheese Melt trucks in multiple cities and eventually sell franchises. The way he sees it, there’s no more universally appealing food than a grilled cheese sandwich.

“Grilled cheese is so great. You can do so much with it. You can appease the purists who just want straight-up cheese only, and you can get into all the fancy concoctions,” he says. “And no matter what, you’re going to get melty cheese.”

Photographed by Nikki Bowman

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