There’s nothing like coming back to JMU after winter break and missing the home-cooked meals you’ve become accustomed to for the past couple of weeks. While the majority of JMU students will settle for a salad from Festival or some buffalo bites from P.C. Dukes, avoid this mistake and head over to former food truck Grilled Cheese Mania’s new restaurant, located on 1476 S. Main St. and indulge in a delightful meal just like something a grandmother would make.
Lifelong New Jersey resident Kathleen Mania-Casey moved to Virginia six years ago looking for her own path and a new hobby that could change people's lives. Earlier this year, her Harrisonburg-based food truck, Grilled Cheese Mania, made its move from an eye-catching red truck to a homey, cottage-like restaurant. Operating under similar hours, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Mania-Casey chose to change the business’s operating medium as an effort to boost sales.
“Every year it’s been getting harder and harder on me physically with the weather and the labor at the end of the busy season,” Mania-Casey said. “Besides the fall and spring, people weren’t sitting outside eating and enjoying themselves, therefore we just weren’t getting the business that we should have been getting.”
Mania-Casey, along with co-owners Emily Casey and Ben Hughes, felt it was necessary to expand the business into a building so that Grilled Cheese Mania could operate year-round. Mania-Casey emphasized the importance of having a healthy working environment for her employees, as well as more space for storage when choosing a new location.
Amelia Markisello has been working at Grilled Cheese Mania for about a year and a half and looks forward to going into work every day in an effort to make someone else’s day better.
“I love working at Grilled Cheese Mania, it’s such a great group of people to be around. They’re really kind, supportive and overall a great group, especially Kathleen who’s an amazing boss,” Markisello said. “I try my best, as well as everyone else here to help make every customer’s day a little bit better.”
When choosing the building and interior design for the restaurant, both of Mania-Casey’s co-owners wished for something modern and sleek, yet Mania-Casey didn’t feel this was expressive of herself. With a vision in mind, Mania-Casey looked for several different properties with commercial zoning. After much searching, she found one that had space for her picnic tables and cornhole, as well as a location close enough to interstate 81 and JMU.
“I wanted a place that when you come in, you love the food and you also love the atmosphere, which gives a comfortable and relaxed feel,” Mania-Casey said. “I literally took pictures off my walls at home and hung them inside of the building in hopes of bringing a piece of myself into the restaurant.”
Friend of the owners and local Harrisonburg resident Luke Watson has been eating at Grilled Cheese Mania since their beginning days as a truck, calling the restaurant one of his favorite places to eat in the area.
“I’ve known Kathleen ever since she had just the truck, and she's a super sweet lady and the food is always fantastic and consistent,” Watson said. “I have a food truck myself soon to be off the ground called Tangi, so I’m always really happy to support other food trucks.”
After Mania-Casey made the move from her home in New Jersey down to Virginia following the passing of her mother and husband, she began working at JMU Dining Services. However, she didn’t care for the job and felt it was time for a change. After much thought, she decided to use her past experience of owning a family-run deli in New Jersey to start a business in Harrisonburg.
“I had a whole business plan, a logo and everything, but then I just had no peace about it, so I packed it away and then I eventually threw it away,” Mania-Casey said.
Mania-Casey gathered inspiration for a new business proposal from her co-owners. After seeing how popular food trucks were on TV and tasting the grilled cheese sandwich her daughter’s company was making, they came up with a plan. Mania-Casey along with her co-owners decided to put together a menu and turn their idea into a reality. Mania-Casey and her co-owners opened the Grilled Cheese Mania truck on October 15, 2012.
“I had no intentions of opening a restaurant, and I definitely never imagined things taking off as well as they have; I just wanted something to do,” Mania-Casey said. “I felt when I moved down here that I was just floundering and I said to myself that I needed to do something on my own.”
Mania-Casey enrolled in multiple classes at a local small business development center where she got the idea for a name of the food truck. A businessman she’d met at the class mentioned that the business should be called something regarding herself, leading Mania-Casey to use her maiden name, Mania, in its title.
“I was trying to find and reinvent myself again, especially after my husband and mother passed,” Mania-Casey said. “I was a mother, a daughter and a wife for so many years, but after everything that happened I questioned all of that. This was my chance to reinvent myself.”
Mania-Casey has been working toward making peace with the events that have changed her life. Her involvement in a local church and surrounding herself with people who support her has helped her toward her dream of owning a business. Almost every item on the GCM menu has been carefully named to represent someone who’s meaningful in her life.
“When people order the ‘Casey Snowcap,’ I feel like I’m talking to my husband, or when people order the ‘Mama Mania,’ I feel like I’m with my mother,” Mania-Casey said. “All of these items have meaning to me and it’s real special for me.”
In the future, Mania-Casey and her co-owners hope to begin using Grubhub and expand the business to offer catering. She hopes to reach out to the JMU community by opening one of the GCM trailers at the top of Port Republic Road to be open for exclusive late-night hours on the weekend. With aspirations to expand and help those around her, Mania-Casey and her crew will continue to embrace a small, local community feel and never lose sight of their roots.
“I love my work whether I’m working at home or when I’m actually at Grilled Cheese Mania,” Mania-Casey said. “I want to offer the best I can, be the best I am and use the talents God has blessed me with. Bottom line is, the more successful I am, the more people I can help. It’s not all about the money for me, but instead it’s about what I can do with that money and how many people I can reach.”
Contact Emily Montoya at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.