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Call it cloak and dairy.
New Yorkers text or phone a black market dealer they know only as “Ronnie.” They place their order, agree on a drop location, and then look over their shoulders furtively as the delivery arrives in a plain, brown paper bag.
Sound like a drug deal? No: The contraband in question is the all-American grilled cheese sandwich.
“They are really crispy on the outside, then the cheese I get really melted and gooey,” Ronnie explained in a top-secret interview with TODAYshow.com. “That’s the pitfall with a lot of grilled cheeses: The outside is burned and the inside isn’t gooey enough.”
So what's all the secrecy about? The fact is, Ronnie, a former investment banker who grew up in the Northeast, doesn’t have a commercial food license. While he advertises daily specials on social media, he’s constantly worried about getting caught. And now his grilled cheese business is getting so popular that he’s sweating bullets — and it’s not from the heat in his underground kitchen.
“I’m worried that I’m getting too busy,” Ronnie told the New York Post. “I’m instituting a friends and friends-of-friends policy. I kind of want to quit; it’s getting too big, but I want to feed these people.
“It’s not cool with the Department of Health,” he added. “I don’t know how much longer I want to do it, because I’m living in fear. It would be such a stupid thing to get into trouble for.”
But despite the danger, the guerrilla griller braved an appearance on TODAY Wednesday, dropping a sandwich off to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb at the top of the fourth hour. (At his own insistence, Ronnie appeared only in silhouette, and his voice was artificially distorted.)
As she sank her teeth into an American cheese with bacon, Gifford remarked, “We’re breaking the law, and it feels so good.”
Kotb, who had chosen Cheddar and jalapeno, agreed, noting that getting a sandwich delivered furtively on a street corner was “half the fun.”
‘Guerrilla food’Indeed, Ronnie’s business is part of a growing “guerilla food” culture. It has its roots in 1970s guerrilla gardens, where folks sought out dead urban areas and began planting flowers and edible plants, sometimes by “seed bombing” — throwing seeds into dangerous urban lots nearly impossible to access by foot.
By the dawn of the 2000s, guerrilla restaurants began popping up in urban areas such as San Francisco, New York and London — unlicensed establishments, often in people’s homes, that built an underground clientele through word of mouth.
But these days, guerrilla food has become downright specialized. In addition to Ronnie’s grilled cheese fare, a Brooklyn man, Ben Sargent, has taken to selling savory lobster rolls out of his apartment.
Sargent told the New York Daily News he accepts calls from hungry customers, who make their way to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn where he lives. He tries to avoid legal interference by asking customers to “contribute” $14 per roll for what he calls “dinner parties.”
But whether you’re allowed to linger after getting your roll is up to Sargent’s whims.
“If I’m not in the mood for you to come in and hang out, I’m just going to pass it through the mail slot.”
While Sargent focuses on one specially targeted product, Ronnie’s offerings run the gamut of the grilled cheese world. The website urbandaddy.com reports Ronnie will whip up anything from Kraft singles on Wonder Bread to exotic Spanish Malvarosa topped with caramelized onions and raw jalapeno peppers. The sandwiches go for $5 to $7 a pop.
What’s his secret? After grilling each sandwich, he pops it into the oven for a short stint to maximize crispiness. He operates around the clock in the kitchen of his brother’s apartment.
But even Ronnie realizes the weirdness factor of pedaling around Manhattan on a bike and making furtive drop-offs. ”I feel like a drug dealer because I’m handing people a paper bag and they’re handing me cash,” he told the New York Post.
But while it may be illegal, Ronnie’s business is a hit. Just like Seinfeld’s famous “Soup Nazi” would occasionally drop a wedge of bread into a bag containing a soup order, Ronnie sometimes includes a can of beer or an airline bottle of booze to customers whose orders capture his fancy.
“As it stands now, I can’t keep up with the demand,” Ronnie, whose dad taught him the grilled cheese craft, told TODAYshow.com. “I am looking to expand production.”
And his customers are a dedicated lot. Lia Strassler told the New York Post a delivery from Ronnie is the highlight of her day.
“I couldn’t finish the day without one of these sandwiches,” she told the Post. “It’s better than any grilled cheese my mom ever made.”