Some consumer feedback surveys can make restaurant owners cringe. In the case of The Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., the special-occasion fondue chain discovered a diner dilemma that most operators would love to have.
“We had a great problem. Our guest wanted to use us more often,” said Mike Lester, president of the Tampa, Fla.-based casual-dining company.
The 115-unit chain took the diner feedback to heart and developed the brand’s next-generation restaurant.
The makeover includes an expanded menu and hours, an open dining room with a larger bar and lounge seating, an exhibition kitchen and a retail store.
The first units to sport the new design are a restaurant that opened Tuesday in El Paso, Texas, and another that opened in the summer in Red Bank, N.J.
Going forward, new ground-up restaurants will adopt the new features including two restaurants planned to open soon in Mexico, Lester said. About a dozen franchisees are in various construction stages of adopting elements of the redesign in their existing restaurants.
So far, diners are making good on their survey answers.
Most Melting Pot customers visit three to four times a year. But in New Jersey, diners are now patronizing, on average, two to three times a month.
The redesigned restaurants in New Jersey and Texas are open for lunch weekdays and brunch from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The restaurants also feature a wine bar for tasting flights of wine and for diners to “blend” their own wine from premium vintners, Lester said.
One of the most visible makeover elements is the bar area.
Lester said the Melting Pot bars were never designed to be an “integral part of the fondue dining experience.” It was essentially a place to get a drink and wait for a table, he said.
The larger bar, which is surrounded by 10 cocktail tables, embraces a new generation of customers who enjoy dining at the bar or grabbing a drink and a snack before a movie.
A new bar menu features lollipop lamb chops, rosemary fries, sliders and “drunken bread,” which is garlic bread soaked in white wine and topped with alpine cheese and herbs.
In New Jersey, Lester said, the new “bar is massive, and we’ve seen great interactions with guest there.”
The bar also features a “peninsula table” that sticks out at a 90-degree angle at one end of the bar to accommodate parties of four.
The redesigned floor plan scraps the dark and cozy dining spaces of the past in exchange for an open dining room space.
“The consumer has changed, and they don’t want those [intimate] spaces,” Lester said.
An exhibition kitchen allows diners to view the prep work involved in their fondue experience.
“Our food is beautiful to look at. And we’ve been hiding them behind walls,” Lester said.
Diners can also buy blocks of cheese, cured meats and chocolate dipped desserts and bacon from a retail store.
At lunch, the new menu features paninis and an express “fondue in a flash” experience that includes a salad, cheese fondue for one and satay skewers.
Both lunch and dinner menus contain new entrees for diners who don’t want to cook their proteins at the table in the fondue pots are the newly installed grills.
In Texas, the “cooked” entrée options from the “hot kitchen” include braised short ribs, chicken and waffles, and teriyaki ginger salmon.
Opening for brunch is also giving Melting Pot customers a reason to return more often, Lester said.
One of the best-selling new items is the Melting Pot’s twist on the classic eggs Benedict dish.
The Alpine Benedict comes with scrambled eggs, hollandaise sauce, smoked ham, and breads for dipping in a fondue pot. Brunch, in fact, has been doing so well, Lester said 19 other restaurants in the system have adopted a version of the brunch menu including a location in St. Petersburg, Fla.
The new Melting Pot is an evolution of the brand, Lester said.
“Don’t get me wrong. Fondue is still king at Melting Pot,” he said. “We always believed that we were a great restaurant for romance, birthdays and special occasion. And we still are.”
But sometimes diners want a little more, and that’s what the Melting Pot is trying to achieve.
“This is an exciting time in the history of the brand when we have recreated ourselves and we look forward to sharing it with our guests in communities across the country as we continue to expand,” he said in a statement.
In the fall, a Pittsburgh, Pa. restaurant will relocate and reopen with elements of the new brand design.
Contact Nancy Luna at [email protected]
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