BALTIMORE — Before Kraft Heinz introduced its Lunchables Grilled Cheesies frozen sandwich, the startup A Friendly Bread offered an adult version of the concept that uses sourdough bread. Lane Levine, founder of A Friendly Bread, wanted to offer consumers a convenient frozen product that would be perceived as a premium item.

“I originally began (this) as a fresh bread business in 2018 and started selling at farmers markets and doing bread delivery,” Levine said. “When we would be at farmers markets, customers would come up to me and show me photos of what they were doing with my sourdough product; turning them into gourmet foods.”

The ideas inspired Levine to begin experimenting with his bread and turn it into his grilled cheese sandwiches. Grilled cheese night dinners at a local apartment complex is where he developed flavors and learned how well the sourdough bread transformed into a grilled cheese sandwich.

“We brought premade ones (grilled cheese sandwiches) so it would be easier to heat them up at the event,” Levine said. “I also had them sitting at home in the fridge and friends would start heating them up and that’s the first time it hit me to make a packaged product that was scalable because you could preserve it through freezing or refrigeration, and you could get a lot more value out of an individual loaf of bread.”

Since launching the frozen grilled cheese sandwiches in March 2022, Levine’s target audience has grown from work-from-home millennials to grandmothers enjoying the sandwiches with their grandchildren.

Levine said specialty retail has been the company’s sweet spot and the product has gained entry in Fresh Market, Giant Food and The Giant Co., both owned by Ahold-Delhaize. He also is giving direct-to-consumer a go, but said the business currently is mostly retail focused.

The company also has identified demand on college campuses, convenience stores and quick foodservice. Levine said the company, which manufactures its products, also is doing research to see if the product can be stored in refrigerated sections of stores and outlets.

Levine thinks his product is in a new, but promising category.

“While it’s in its first year of existence and people often don’t go into the grocery store looking for grilled cheese (sandwiches) in the frozen section, it’s been a little slow uptake; but once people start to notice the category, I think it’ll build velocity,” he said. “We’re going to slowly grow our number of doors as opposed to trying to blow up our door count.”

He also hopes with the launch of Kraft Heinz’s Lunchables Grilled Cheesies earlier this year, smaller grilled cheese businesses like his may benefit from a larger manufacturer leading the way.

“It’s kind of a larger company giving their blessing to a new category and, hopefully, using their marketing money to educate the public about that type of product,” he said. “We may have a customer who now knows about frozen grilled cheese and they go to that section and they see the Lunchables might be for kids, but also want something that’s a little higher end for adults. They might reach for ours and (be) comfortable doing that because they already know something like that exists.”