Melting Pot food
The Melting Pot

The Melting Pot has seen 10 straight weeks of systemwide positive same-store sales, including comps against 2019.

The Melting Pot Proves Experiential Dining Still Matters

Sales, traffic, and franchise interest are all moving the right way. 

When COVID-19 arrived in March, it stole one of The Melting Pot’s biggest strengths.

Equipped with well-known fondue and high-quality dishes, the upscale casual's mission is to serve as the special gathering place for dates, anniversaries, or just a nice night out on the town. The pandemic wiped away those moments instantly across the nation.

But The Melting Pot is built with a 46-year-old foundation. The roughly 100-unit brand leveraged its legacy and implemented pivots to persevere until it saw the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. And with vaccines increasing, COVID rates dropping, and jurisdictions dropping restrictions, The Melting Pot is reaching that point at a quick pace. The company has seen 10 straight weeks of systemwide positive same-store sales, including comps against 2019. Those weeks ranged from 3.8 percent growth to just under a 33 percent increase, for an overall average of 18 percent. Guest count lifted in half of those weeks, as well. So it’s not just about pricing, the company says.

“I think it's indicative of the restaurant-going public’s desire to get back out to doing the things that they love doing and also testimony to our brand, because I think we're outperforming a lot of our competitors,” CEO Bob Johnston says.

READ MORE: Restaurant Sales Reach New Pandemic Peak

Roughly 60 percent of locations are at full capacity, although social distancing requirements remain in several places. The rest range from 25 to 75 percent, except for four stores that are temporarily closed. Still, Johnston doesn’t believe the diminished capacities have spoiled the fun for guests. From weekly customer surveys, The Melting Pot has seen positive feedback for overall satisfaction, value, experience, and atmosphere. Food is another major metric that’s measured, and that hasn’t wavered either, Johnston says.

Nowadays, the dine-in experience isn’t the only way The Melting Pot fulfills consumers’ needs—COVID made sure of that. The chain instituted its first to-go program in March 2020, which wasn’t an easy task considering its reliance on food and entertainment. Johnston admits when The Melting Pot didn’t have the environment to work with, the brand wasn’t sure how it would be viewed by guests. But consumers responded. The to-go program allowed the company to stay in front of customers—especially loyal brand advocates—and meet their needs during the roughly four-month period when dining rooms were completely shuttered.

The strategy behind translating The Melting Pot’s environment into an off-premises program was realizing a major part of what goes on in restaurants is about what’s around the pot, just not what’s inside. Meaning, customers come to The Melting Pot with family, friends, and loved ones to create memories and have fun. Johnston says that desire is still present even when restaurants are closed.

“We provided really the food experience for people to do that this time in their own homes as opposed to in our dining room,” Johnston says. “So we really leveraged a great strength of the brand, which is this idea of people connecting together and the meal being as much about the guests gathered around the pot as it is about the food in the pot.”

The Melting Pot

The Melting Pot has seen a flurry of interest in unit development for both new builds and conversions.

But don’t get Johnston wrong. Off-premises is a small piece of business, and it will remain that way. The Melting Pot knows what its strength is, and it will continue to take advantage of it. To attract more guests to the dining room and ease the pressure on weekends, The Melting Pot team pushed promotions that boost weekday traffic. A few weeks prior to the onset of the pandemic, the brand introduced Thursdate, which offers a four-course menu featuring artisan cheese fondue, fresh salad, a premium entrée, and Sparkling Chocolate Fondue. Johnston says the program was “enormously successful” at lifting weekday sales. Melting Pot is also launching a promotion called Best Fondue Friends Forever on Wednesdays.

“I also think that that for a period of time—although I think this will maybe change a little bit—customers were a little bit more okay with the idea of celebrating a special occasion on a weekday, as opposed to saving it up for a weekend because weekdays kind of resembled weekends when you're working at home, right?” Johnston says. “That environment will change when people go back to more ordinary work schedules and environments, I think. So we hedged against that by creating these programs to sustain the heavy weekday sales as long as possible.”

READ MORE: The Melting Pot Positions Itself for Franchise Growth

With sales trending positively and guests returning in droves, The Melting Pot witnessed a flurry of interest in unit development for both new builds and conversions. The pipeline of franchise leads is up three times compared to pre-pandemic figures. Johnston says it hasn’t translated into many deals yet, but he expects a number of new stores to be in development soon in some of The Melting Pot’s target markets like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

Beyond improving sales and traffic, Johnston says potential franchisees are attracted to The Melting Pot because of customers' affinity for the brand. He adds the chain has a great connection with the consumer, almost on an emotional, cult-like level. The CEO also believes many operators and executives have found themselves in a situation that is a little less certain than last year, and many are looking for ways to control their destiny through ownership.

“It's one of the points of pride for me is to think about all of the people who have stepped into a role of ownership as a Melting Pot franchisee over the course of the last 35 years that I've been involved with the brand,” Johnston says.

Enticing operators even more is the fact that The Melting Pot is undergoing a remodeling process. Johnston describes the transformation as “making fondue sexy.” The brand is retaining all of its brand pillars of an interactive and fun environment where you’re focused on the people you’re with, but with higher energy, updated interiors, more irreverence, and less stuffiness. Clever slogans are displayed throughout, such as “cheese and chocolate fixes everything” or “I know it may sound cheesy, but you look good,” on the women’s bathroom mirror.

The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot
The Melting Pot

The program kicked off in Q1 2020, but was thrown off by COVID, so only a couple of units have gone through the transformation. But those that have been remodeled are comping higher sales results.

“We're serious about fondue, but we're taking ourselves a little less seriously, and I think that's what people are interested in,” Johnston says. “You can still dress up and go to a Melting Pot, but you can also feel very comfortable coming as you are.”

Going forward, a big obstacle will be the ongoing labor shortage—a crisis hitting restaurants across the quick-service and full-service segments. To tackle the issue, The Melting Pot produced a series of training webinars and materials designed to help franchisees and operators be more competitive when it comes to recruiting and to be more creative when it comes to retaining. The training is vital, because the brand is currently turning away guests at an alarming rate. Johnston says the amount of unavailable reservation times is a lot higher than the company would like. He notes removing restrictions is the big opportunity, but that only workers if the restaurant has enough staff to serve customers.

The CEO says The Melting Pot has a few other tricks up its sleeve to attract employees for the remainder year, but he’s not at liberty to say. However, he can say The Melting Pot is bullish on what lies ahead. There are certain parts of the country that are still struggling, but for other parts, the chain is buckling its seat belt for a summer run.

“It's going to be very busy in particular in the Southeast states,” Johnston says. “We know that we're ready for that. Getting ready for that. I believe that once we come out of summer and go into the remainder of the year, we're forecasting that we're going to continue to be busy because of the pent-up demand. And we're hoping to be in an unrestricted environment with sufficient staff to do all of the business that can meet the needs of all the customers who want to come in and dine. We're feeling very positive about it.”