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HomeFoodThe Melting Pot’s Plan to Modernize Fondue

The Melting Pot’s Plan to Modernize Fondue


If in case you have been to the Melting Pot earlier than, it was probably on a date. Possibly it was a primary date, the place dipping bread cubes and apple chunks right into a pot of burbling cheese, cooked proper at your desk, provided a welcome distraction from the awkwardness of attending to know a brand new individual. My very own first expertise on the restaurant was a primary date with a person whose title I don’t keep in mind, however I vividly recall that I unintentionally (flippantly!) stabbed him with a fondue fork while reaching for a piece of bread.

Since its founding within the Nineteen Seventies, the Melting Pot has been a special day staple, the form of place the place romantic little nooks for {couples} to canoodle present the proper spot to make googly eyes at a brand-new flame, or the place the semiprivate cubicles completely nestle a household celebrating their child’s highschool commencement. It’s the place you go once you’re freshly flush with money out of your first teenage job and need to really feel fancy with your pals as you strive to determine how the hell to pronounce “Emmentaler.” The Melting Pot is undeniably gimmicky on some stage, and it’s a gimmick that’s labored for greater than 40 years.

However now, after these 4 a long time — and almost two since my fateful, completely unintentional fondue stabbing incident — the Melting Pot is trying towards a brand new period. “Individuals’s tastes are continually evolving and altering, and we attempt to keep forward of that,” says Melting Pot CEO Bob Johnston. For the fondue chain, which means promoting individuals on the concept a pot of Gruyere and raclette isn’t only for particular events or value visiting as a jokey bit, however is simply as applicable for a random Tuesday evening.

A man and a woman sit in a restaurant booth as a server dressed in black addresses the table.

A server talks to Claire and Dan Sylvest whereas eating on the Melting Pot restaurant in Houston.

At one Oklahoma Metropolis location, the way forward for the Melting Pot appears brilliant. Pure gentle pours in via huge street-facing home windows within the cool historic constructing. A number of the restaurant’s acquainted secluded cubicles stay, however a lot of the open area creates an environment extra appropriate for teams because of bigger tables, canary-colored banquette seating, and specifically designed tables that may be simply pushed collectively. (It’s a extra difficult activity than one may suppose: Every tabletop cooking floor have to be plugged into an outlet.)

Along with the acquainted tabletop fondue pot, during which diners prepare dinner proteins and greens in effervescent pots of cheese or broth, diners now have the chance to grill their very own meats proper on the desk because of a cast-iron grill pan. There are new menu objects like rosemary-scented fries, a no brainer for dipping in cheese, and made-to-order appetizers like Buffalo cauliflower, fried inexperienced tomatoes, and pan-seared potstickers drizzled with teriyaki glaze.

“It’s a a lot sexier vibe within the restaurant,” Johnston says. “Individuals need to really feel like they’re a part of a occurring area; they need to really feel good vitality. Our previous designs actually have been very separate and secluded, and the one individuals that you just noticed have been the individuals in your occasion. Individuals need to really feel related to one thing greater.”

As I settled into my sales space at a Melting Pot location in Addison, Texas, a few weeks in the past, the distinction between old-fashioned and new felt stark. Its eating room felt like a relic of the Nineteen Nineties, with cheesy patterned carpets and darkish wooden blinds. Additionally absent have been a lot of the menu upgrades — I used to be particularly bummed that I couldn’t dunk any crispy rosemary fries into my garlicky Alpine fondue — however for the second course, we have been in a position to choose the cast-iron grill pan, on which we might grill small chunks of steak and salmon. The eating room was largely empty, and our well-meaning server advised us, apropos of nothing, that there have been solely three reservations on the books for your entire night. Peering across the empty eating room, I questioned whether or not or not some new decor and seared potstickers would assist; if they might be sufficient of a pivot to make Melting Pot really feel much less like a special day fondue restaurant and simply… a daily previous restaurant.

The primary-ever Melting Pot opened in Maitland, Florida, a suburb of Orlando, in 1975. The menu was easy — two savory fondue choices and chocolate fondue for dessert — and the restaurant shortly earned a devoted following within the fondue-obsessed ’70s, when many of us owned their very personal pot-and-burner setup for making the dish at dwelling. Because the Maitland location turned extra common, worker Mark Johnston sought approval to open a second location in Tallahassee together with his brothers Mike and Bob, the latter of whom labored one among his first jobs on the Melting Pot, washing dishes within the kitchen.

Now, Bob Johnston is the corporate’s CEO. In 1985, the brothers normal the Melting Pot right into a franchise firm, opening a number of new eating places yearly; it at present has 96 areas within the U.S. Mike Johnston retired in 2020, leaving Bob and Mark as its sole homeowners. That yr was additionally a really pivotal time for the corporate: It launched an initiative known as the Melting Pot Evolution, during which the corporate and its franchisees would make investments $30 million to replace the restaurant’s menu and produce an aesthetic refresh to its eating rooms.

An overhead shot of a person using tongs to add shredded cheese to a fondue pot. Alongside the pot a wooden serving board holds a cup of olives, chunks of meat, and crackers.

A person spoons scallions into a fondue pot filled with cheese and topped with bacon bits and sour cream.

Then, in fact, got here the COVID-19 pandemic, and fondue doesn’t actually “pivot to takeout.” “Nobody was ready for it. You get up within the morning and you’ve got zero income,” Johnston says. “We in a short time put collectively a to-go providing, but it surely made up solely a fraction of what our regular gross sales would have been. Individuals need that have in our eating places, not at dwelling.”

In Oklahoma Metropolis, Melting Pot franchisees Mark and Becky Chapman had simply began their “Evolution Initiative” when the pandemic pressured eating places to shut their doorways. “When COVID hit, we thought, ‘Crap, we’ve simply made the largest mistake of our lives,’” Mark Chapman says. “We had these secluded cubicles that we have been taking out to form of open the area up, and it was the worst time to try this.”

The Chapmans, who personal two areas — one in OKC, the opposite in Tulsa — have been among the many first franchisees to spend money on revamping their eating places. The Oklahoma Metropolis Melting Pot, located in a first-rate spot within the metropolis’s downtown, is a brief stroll from the house of the OKC Thunder basketball workforce and never removed from the colourful Bricktown leisure district. The eating room feels greater, a lot brighter, and decidedly extra fashionable than its counterpart restaurant in Addison, with brilliant pops of shade, industrial finishes, and heat woods, plus loads of uncovered brick to keep up the constructing’s historic character.

COVID restrictions have been lifted within the state simply because the renovations have been accomplished, and diners returned in droves after being caught inside for weeks. The Chapmans say they noticed a $1 million improve in gross sales within the months after, which Mark attributes largely to the restaurant’s renovation.

As a result of the Melting Pot is operated by franchisees, there’s some inevitable selection from restaurant to restaurant, although the corporate tries to reduce that variation as a lot as potential. “So long as we give you one thing that has the visitor in thoughts, and matches in with the general concept of what the Melting Pot needs to offer, they’ll give us some leeway,” Chapman says. “The operations, although, are very commonplace, and there are some issues which you could’t deviate from. They need the expertise to really feel the identical in Nashville or California or wherever you go.”

Retaining a way of familiarity is essential to any legacy model, and is probably significantly acute with the Melting Pot specifically. After I visited in Addison, I sat subsequent to a few who had pushed two hours to this location as a result of — I child you not — they didn’t just like the extra fashionable Oklahoma Metropolis eating room. (Later, the couple additionally casually talked about that one among them had been “kicked out for saying one thing offensive,” which additionally meant they couldn’t go to the opposite Oklahoma outpost in Tulsa, as a result of it too is operated by the Chapmans.) “You must innovate if you wish to keep related,” Johnston says, “however you even have to hold on to the core of your corporation.”

Man and woman at a restaurant table with purple and silver balloons tied to the back of it and a fondue pot in the center.

Haylee Palmer celebrates her thirty fourth birthday over Coq Au Vin with Adam Warner on the Melting Pot restaurant on Westheimer on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2024, in Houston. Palmer has celebrated her birthday on the restaurant a number of years in a row.

“We nonetheless need to personal celebrations,” says Scott Martin, a regional basic supervisor for the Chapmans’ Melting Pot areas. “We wish individuals to think about us if it’s Valentine’s Day or they get a giant promotion or it’s their tenth anniversary; we need to be prime of thoughts.”

The Melting Pot’s technique positioning itself as an “on a regular basis” deal with goes past the eating room, too. In December 2023, the corporate began promoting its fondue mixes straight for shoppers to prepare dinner at dwelling, each in grocery shops and by way of its web site, the latter of which is a partnership with Omaha Steaks. It’s an fascinating transfer, to take what’s ostensibly a “fancy” expertise and switch it into one thing which you could purchase in a bag on grocery retailer cabinets, however one which is smart within the Melting Pot’s period of transition. The model is, primarily, making an attempt to be the whole lot to everybody all of sudden. It needs to herald new prospects whereas nonetheless having the ability to provide the expertise its change-resistant loyalists demand. And it’s persevering with to scale: In February, the chain introduced that it could provide main monetary incentives to new franchisees to open new areas in an effort to “meet rising buyer demand.”

And maybe that’s as a result of, even when the decor is somewhat dated, the attraction of a pot of melted cheese endures. There’s no denying that the fondue, the menu merchandise that made the Melting Pot an American eating icon, is great. We opted for the basic Alpine fondue — a mixture of Gruyere, raclette, and fontina spiked with garlic and white wine — which was wealthy and somewhat sharp and made even the powerful stems of uncooked broccoli scrumptious. The identical goes for the restaurant’s huge end, a pot of molten chocolate. Even when it isn’t the highest quality chocolate you’ve ever had in your life, who doesn’t need to swirl minimize strawberries and little hunks of pound cake in candy, melty chocolate?

In a time when fondue itself is having a second, the Melting Pot is at a vital crossroads. Will it transfer into the long run as a restaurant, with its Instagram-worthy sparklers attracting a complete new era of fondue devotees who see it as extra than simply a special day vacation spot? Or will it find yourself discovering extra success within the grocery aisle, a relic of ’70s nostalgia that may be merely warmed up on the stovetop? Both method, one factor’s sure — the cheese springs everlasting.

Annie Mulligan is a photographer in Houston.

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