The "best of both worlds" sandwich at I Heart Mac...

The "best of both worlds" sandwich at I Heart Mac & Cheese, which has opened in Hauppauge. Credit: I Heart Mac & Cheese

When the Florida-based chain I Heart Mac & Cheese first arrived on Long Island two years ago, in Patchogue, the concept seemed so destined to flourish here that two entrepreneurs signed on to open 23 more locations here.

Then COVID happened, putting brakes on Vinny Greco and Dan Dollard's plans to blanket Long Island with build-your-own mac-and-cheese bowls and grilled cheese sandwiches. "Once the pandemic hit, everything slowed down," said Greco, from permits to hiring. On March 31, he and Dollard finally opened their first I Heart Mac & Cheese — in a Hauppauge space that they leased two years ago. (They do not own the Patchogue location).

The cheerful spot, which has a few tables, industrial detailing and a busy counter, is very close to Hauppauge High School, and Greco said many of the 30 or so people he hired are high schoolers. "We want them to bring their friends, and we want to do a lot with the sports teams," said Greco, who also owns two Hurricane Grill & Wings on Long Island and said the pandemic illustrated the importance of connecting eateries with their communities.

CIA-trained chef Michael Blum co-founded I Heart Mac & Cheese in Fort Lauderdale in 2015, shaping the concept of customizable mac-and-cheese to meet various dietary restrictions, from gluten-free to vegan (for instance, the signature cheddar cheese sauce is free of gluten, and plant-based alternatives abound). The chain, owned by Steve Giordanella, has since expanded to dozens of corporate-owned and franchised locations in various states. All draw on the same assembly-line model: Customers choose their base (cavatappi pasta, gluten-free pasta, quinoa, Tater Tots, broccoli or cauliflower) and then pick from myriad cheeses, vegetables, proteins and sauces to finish their bowl, which is sent through a machine to bake until molten. Customized bowls start at $8.95, while signature bowls start at $5.95 for a classic mac-and-cheese and top out at $15.95 for a lobster-topped version. A coconut-based vegan cheese sauce and Beyond Meat sausage and beef crumbles are among the plant-based options.

Build-your-own grilled cheese sandwiches start at $8.95, with choices at every turn: Three types of bread, 9 kinds of cheese (including cheddar, Muenster, bleu cheese and the like), various meats and proteins, and veggies. Those who can't decide between bowls or sandwiches can cast their lot with "the best of both worlds": mac-and-cheese, short ribs and melted cheddar spilling from beneath two slices of toasted sourdough slathered with barbecue sauce, for $10.95.

After Greco sees that the Hauppauge location is humming along, he said he and his partner will explore opening more locations. A grand opening is planned for later this spring, with a bonus in between: On National Grilled Cheese Day, April 12, I Heart Mac & Cheese will offer buy one, get-one-half-off grilled-cheese sandwiches.

I Heart Mac & Cheese is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 812 Wheeler Rd., Hauppauge. 631-780-6182.

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