Fondue: Isn’t that something people ate in the 1970s? Yes, but unlike the wide ties and bellbottoms of that era, it’s still around, and it didn’t take long for The Melting Pot  in Irvine, Calif., to catch on with diners. The restaurant, owned and operated by Mira Selbo, was the first unit of the Tampa, Fla.-based fondue chain to be located in Southern California. When the unit opened in 2002, sales were $1.3 million; by 2006 they had shot to $4.24 million.
Selbo now owns and operates two other units, one in San Clemente, Calif., and another in Brea, Calif. The interior of the Irvine unit features ornate light fixtures and contemporary European paintings. The Brea restaurant has a Tuscan feel, and the San Clemente location is done in warm tones to create an intimate ambiance, especially for anyone who’s seated in the secluded “lovers’ lane” area.
What drives your sales?
A lot of it is word-of-mouth. People who come to dine really enjoy themselves. It’s really “togetherness dining.” You don’t get a lot of opportunity to do that these days. We’re a reservation restaurant, and it’s like a two- to three-week wait for weekends, if you want the preferred time you’re looking for.
What type of customer do you attract?
It’s across the board. We get people who have never even heard of fondue. I think there’s a curiosity level there. Once they try it, they enjoy it. It’s a more upscale type of fondue. We even get young teens. We do teen parties, and they love it.
How do you market your restaurants?
We do advertising in quite a few publications. We also have an e-mail list for people who want to sign up for our Club Fondue, and we let them know about special events like wine dinners. We don’t do any [mass] mailers. That’s not our deal.
What role does restaurant ambiance play in customer satisfaction?
I think it’s very important for what we do. Our style is much more private. You have your own personal space to enjoy the people you’re with. The majority of our seating is booths. People really do enjoy the privacy of that.
Do you get much repeat business, or do diners come only for special occasions?
It may not be as much as a typical restaurant, but we do have those guests who can’t stay away. They have to have their fondue fix. It isn’t something you do on a weekly basis. And we do book a lot of large parties.
You went to Switzerland recently. How’s the fondue there?FAST FACTS
JOB: franchisee, The Melting PotEDUCATION: high school graduateAGE: 47BIRTHPLACE: Twin Falls, IdahoHOBBIES: water skiing, scuba diving, gardening, cooking
It’s more of an old-school fondue. We have new and different options. Americans are not used to the stronger cheeses you find in Europe. It doesn’t fit their palates well. We have a number of cheeses that are more suitable for the American lifestyle.
What challenges did you face in opening your first restaurant?
The biggest challenge was finding a good location, especially when you’re coming into an area that has no idea what Melting Pot is. It took a year and a half to put the restaurant in. It was literally convincing the landlord that we would be a profitable business.
Any advice for would-be franchisees?
Be prepared to put in a lot of long hours. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very rewarding. One of the most rewarding things for me is when I’m walking through the dining room and watching so many people having a good time.