Hot franchise restaurant concept coming to Urbana features favorites of most kids’ palates — grilled cheese and macaroni and cheese — but with plenty of twists for grownup taste buds
by Laura Weisskopf Bleill
I Heart Mac & Cheese, a fast-casual restaurant that specializes in made-to-order, customized macaroni and cheese bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches, will be opening a new store in Urbana later this spring.
Think Chipotle for macaroni and cheese — and grilled cheese.
The sign went up at Gateway Shoppes, located near the corner of University and Cunningham. I Heart Mac & Cheese is located in the suite once occupied by City Girl Yogurt, a locally owned frozen yogurt shop closed permanently in 2019.
An opening date will be announced on its Facebook page, a comment posted two weeks ago indicated. Questions sent to the page have not been answered.
At I Heart Mac & Cheese, customers “select a pasta, bread, quinoa, broccoli, cauliflower, or tater tot base along with a choice of ten different proteins, eleven vegetables, and nine cheeses. Gluten-free, vegan, and plant-based options are also available. Sesame ginger, mango habanero, buffalo, BBQ, and pesto are a few of the delicious dressings and sauces available to mix in or top off each creation,” according to a news release.
Comfort food enjoyed a resurgence in popularity during the height of the pandemic, and it shows no sign of stopping any time soon. There’s even research about it.
The restaurant is in an Urbana neighborhood well served by fast food restaurants, with a Jimmy John’s, Wendy’s, Arby’s, McDonald’s and Panda Express in close proximity.
Fast casual restaurants have gained plenty of traction in recent years. Naf Naf Grill, which opened in Champaign in 2021, often is described as the “Chipotle of falafel” and Blaze is the “Chipotle of pizza” (two Champaign-Urbana locations, including north Champaign and the Illini Union.)
The Urbana opening is part of a dedicated expansion into Illinois; the first one to open was in Schaumburg, located at the upper level of the Woodfield Mall in the food court. Free standing locations are anticipated in north suburban Glenview and the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago.
I Heart Mac & Cheese started in South Florida, where it has its headquarters; the majority of its locations are in the southeast. Having started only in 2016, the chain has experienced explosive growth since late 2020. About a dozen locations have already opened or are in process in Indiana alone in the past 18 months, although many of those franchise agreements were signed before the Covid-19 pandemic.