Blake Gurerrero, Ryan Nelson and Jacob Nestor know a gouda business plan when they see one.
The three West Albany High School seniors have opened a student-run grilled cheese sandwich stand, Cheezers Pleazers, selling three kinds of cheesy sandwiches once a week just outside the school gym.
On Cheezers days, students start lining up even before the bell rings, ready to chow down on an original grilled cheese, an original with bacon or one of the specials of the week (pepperoni, mozzerella and Nestor's secret sauce on this particular Wednesday).
And so far, business is going — well — grate.
"There's recurring customers that come back. I love seeing those people. They come every day, back with a smile on their face, and it makes me smile, too," Guerrero said.
It's even better when someone just stops by out of curiosity, Nestor said. "When there's people we don't even know coming to buy our sandwiches, that's when it's really cool."
The three seniors all worked together last semester in Foods 4 at the Bistro, a student-run lunch cafe that's part of the culinary arts program. When the semester ended, they didn't want to stop cooking together. So they didn't.
Nestor had made a grilled cheese sandwich one day during class just to have a quick snack. It was his usual favorite: a blend of cheddar and pepperjack on sourdough, brushed with a light layer of garlic-seasoned butter and grilled in a panini press.
Classmates melted with approval and told him it was good enough to sell. So with help from Guerrero and Nelson, Nestor set up a stand one day at lunch. The sale was a success, but it came with strings attached: Greater Albany Public Schools has a contract for food service, and a sandwich stand presents a direct conflict.
The three figured they were onto something, however. They set up the stand again for a school-sanctioned "food truck" as part of their Foods 4 final and started looking for a way to keep going. With Principal Susie Orsborn's permission, they settled on an after-hours stand, which they set up on "blue" schedule days (usually a Thursday or Friday, depending on their own conflicts) right outside the door nearest the gym.
"I love cooking with all my friends. It's some of the best times I've had," Nestor explained. "Another thing I love is making food for other people."
Guerrero, Nestor and Nelson all have a free period at the end of "blue" days, about an hour and a half they can use to work on the sandwiches. They purchase and prepare their own ingredients and use school equipment to make sauces and grill the sandwiches.
All three Cheezers workers have food handlers' cards and are careful about clean equipment and quality ingredients. They wrap their sandwiches in halves and charge $2 per half for a standard, $2.50 for one with bacon, and $3 for the week's special. A cup of dipping sauce is 50 cents.
"We didn't want to charge a whole lot," Nelson said. "We wanted people to enjoy them as much as they could."
The sandwiches are available to the general public if someone happens to stop by the parking lot, but that person better be quick: The trio usually make 40 to 50 half-sandwiches and they're gone in minutes.
If a customer is especially lucky, however, he'll find a golden ticket in his foil wrappings, a coupon for a free sandwich. Nestor's father, who works in the food industry, suggested that idea.
Some of the money goes back into the Culinary Arts program and some is used to buy cheese, bread and other supplies for the next sale. Some goes into a fund the three are hoping to tap after graduation to purchase their own panini press.
The three have made a small profit so far — enough to buy matching hats with pictures of blocks of Swiss. T-shirts are next. Loyal customers can purchase both, via the Cheezers' Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram accounts, @cpleazers.
"'Treat Your Stomach Right' is our slogan," Nelson said.
After graduation, Nelson is headed to Oregon State University's School of Business to study apparel design. The other two are enrolling at Linn-Benton Community College. Nestor is considering a career in writing and directing, while Guerrero said he may just stick with culinary arts.
Somehow, however, the three say they'd like to keep the business going. That may mean working on one campus or another, or purchasing a real food truck, or maybe even finding a brick-and-mortar location.
"I love seeing people respond to it," Guerrero said. "And the creative part: What are we going to do this time? Should I marinate this with this sauce? How can I change it up a little?"
"It's a good time, and I love seeing the interaction between the customers and us," Nelson agreed. "It's fun to see the program grow."
Dolly Victorine, the culinary arts teacher who brought the three together, said none of her previous students have built their own business based on her class.
"I am super proud of what they're doing," she said. "That makes my heart warm and emotional; makes my heart a cheesy mess."