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As Fo’ Cheezy grows, so does its impact

Mark Parker

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Chef Robert Hesse, co-founder of Fo' Cheezy, will host a special charity dinner Dec. 8 at the downtown St. Petersburg location. Photos: Facebook.

After stints on popular cooking shows like Hells Kitchen and Beat Bobby Flay, Chef Robert Hesse realizes he could have set up shop in the culinary destination of his choice.

However, the St. Petersburg native felt a calling to give back to the city where he spent his oft-troubled youth.

Hesse returned to the area in March 2020, buying his childhood home in South St. Pete’s Childs Park neighborhood. He and longtime mentor and Co-owner Chef Craig Monroe then launched Fo’ Cheezy Twisted Meltz as a local food truck.

Billed as “not yo’ mama’s grilled cheese,” the two began offering artisan-style gourmet sandwiches with unique ingredients and an urban flair. The concept became a hit, and a downtown St. Petersburg location followed their St. Pete Beach flagship in Oct. 2021. It will now transform into “The Beat-stro” for a fine dining charity event Dec. 8.

“The artistry of what I’m known for is going to be highlighted, at least for one night,” said an impassioned Hesse. “It might turn into something; it might not. But every dollar that we produce that night is going to charity.”

Hesse, before he underwent a dramatic weight loss, receives an earful from Gordon Ramsey.

For $200, attendees receive a six-course meal. The event features music, live demonstrations, and a silent auction featuring what Hesse called “some heavy-hitting shit,” including his chef’s coat from Hell’s Kitchen.

Hesse relayed his shock when he realized Ramsey charged $1,000 per seat for similar dinners. Although Hesse thought $200 for a ticket to his event seemed steep, he said the meal, experience and recipients were worth the money.

In a nod to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, five random customers will receive “golden tickets.” Winners can also bring a guest.

Five random customers will receive “golden tickets” to the event.

“I can just reflect on the fact that I came from here, and somebody saw value,” said Hesse. “I might be asking people to come to this dinner and donate, but I already worked it into my business structure.

“If you shop at Fo’Cheezy, you are helping kids. Like it’s happening, whether you want it to happen or not.”

Hesse and Monroe dedicate 2% of net proceeds to their charitable organization – No Kid 86’d. The term refers to an unavailable item in the restaurant industry and is the cause behind the upcoming Beat-stro event.

Hesse explained that he started Fo’Cheezy to “make a difference between two slices of bread, one meal at a time.” He also expressed that the people of St. Pete and Tampa Bay are responsible for the restaurant’s philanthropic impact, rather than its owners.

For a while, his hometown conjured painful memories for Hesse. He later found success in New York and L.A., worked on movie sets and television shows and cooked for affluent customers in the Hamptons.

However, Hesse felt the urge to return to “the dirty ‘Burg” and help children with similar stories. That includes taking underprivileged kids back to school shopping and distributing truckloads of toys to kids in impoverished areas.

Hesse attended the Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park. Its website states that it serves students “with a variety of exceptionalities,” and he said it is a school of last resort for troubled youth.

He will feed the entire student body Dec. 22, pass out gifts and present a check for a new basketball court. Hesse said he looks forward to seeing their faces, as many kids will go without Christmas presents.

He said something Ramsey once told him is now a life motto.

“It’s not my carbon footprint – it’s your morality footprint,” relayed Hesse. “I want to be known like – we made a difference. Inspired other people to get off their asses and realize there’s no free lunches. It’s not a handout; it’s a hand up.”

Hesse is auctioning the chef’s coat he wore on Hell’s Kitchen.

Fo’Cheezy goes national

Hesse noted that Fo’Cheezy launched during the pandemic and is now debt-free. What started as a food truck is also driving into markets around the Southeast.

He explained that what excites him the most about franchising is what it means for No Child 86’d. Hesse and Monroe envision each establishment donating 2% of net proceeds to the foundation.

Hesse credits Monroe for getting the charity off the ground – and for his entire career. Hesse worked for Monroe as a teenage dishwasher in New York, and the two remained close. Monroe believed in his former employee, and Hesse stressed that he was responsible for the restaurant and foundation’s growth.

The two have presold franchises in Orlando, Miami, West Palm Beach, Atlanta and other cities. Hesse expects those to start launching this quarter, and the partners are looking at a new storefront in the Shoppes at Park Place in Pinellas Park. A Korean taco and artisan hot dog concept are also coming soon.

Kids from a local Boys and Girls Club visit Fo’ Cheezy’s downtown St. Pete location.

Hesse said he and Monroe invested about $250,000 of their own money into franchising. While Hesse said Fo’Cheezy is always hiring, they are now looking for corporate talent to travel and manage the various locations.

“If we grow too fast, then we lose touch with everything,” he added. “Every one that opens across the country … they will have to give 2% of their net to the kids of their community that they serve. I advocate for the underdog because I was the underdog.”

The Beat-stro charity ghost kitchen event begins at 6 p.m. Dec. 8 at 111 3rd St. N. in St. Petersburg. For more information and reservations, call 727-273-6226. View the full menu here.

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