After six years of nearly constant double-digit increases, customer counts are flat for the Melting Pot fondue specialty chain. Flat does not feel good, but it’s better than negative, conceded Bob Johnston, president and chief operating officer of The Melting Pot  Inc., the Tampa, Fla.-based franchisor or operator of 131 restaurants in 36 states. The chain has not been immune from today’s challenging economy of mounting unemployment, rising food and labor costs, and falling customer spending and confidence. But now more than ever is the time to stay committed to investing in training and employees, says Johnston, who is partner in the business with his brothers. The company began putting more emphasis on training a decade ago, incorporating it into pre-shift meetings, employee newsletters, and regional and annual meeting with managers and franchisees.
There is a lot of bad news about the economy today. Does that tempt operators to cut back on expenses like training?
You may be tempted to cut corners and not invest in your team members. Ultimately that may bring you a short-term economic benefit, but it will also bring you long-term economic damage because of the impact on the guest.
Well-trained employees offer better customer service?
Exactly. We’re an organization that did not always invest in learning as we do today. When we had that revelation in the mid-1990s, we began to turn a corner and rose to new levels. We’ll never go back to the dark ages.
What was the revelation?
We had a guest service revelation. Our mission is “The Perfect Night Out.” It’s a night and day difference in how we run our restaurants. We realized that not only was learning an investment in team members and how you provide them the tools to make them a success, but we also realized we could not compromise those tools and materials.
How much do you spend on training?
Typically it averages about 1.5 percent to 2 percent of a unit’s revenue.
Can you measure how training impacts sales?
It’s hard to know what percent of an increase is directly attributable to training versus marketing or promotion. Our customer counts have flattened in the last 12 months, but there are other factors that are a result of that. That we’re not negative, as many of our competitors are, is a testimony that the money is well-spent.