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Melting Pot company goes into the burger business

From left, executive chef Chris Ponte, Front Burner Brands Inc. chief executive officer Mark Johnston and his wife, Arlene Johnston, are starting a new chain of gourmet hamburger restaurants called Burger 21. Their Westchase location opened recently.

LARA CERRI | Times

From left, executive chef Chris Ponte, Front Burner Brands Inc. chief executive officer Mark Johnston and his wife, Arlene Johnston, are starting a new chain of gourmet hamburger restaurants called Burger 21. Their Westchase location opened recently.

Known for fondue, leisurely meals and an average $44 tab with drinks, the Melting Pot recently jumped into the lower-priced fast-casual burger business. The 35-year-old company is expanding its Melting Pot brand into Canada, Mexico and potentially Saudi Arabia. And its six GrillSmith stores are drawing profitable crowds in the Tampa Bay area.

It's all part of a transformation of Melting Pot Restaurants Inc., which changes its name on Jan. 1 to Front Burner Brands Inc. to better reflect a broader vision.

Mark Johnston, the 55-year-old chief executive of a family operation that counts his wife, Arlene, and brothers, Bob, 47, and Mike, 56, in key roles, heads a franchise network anchored by 143 Melting Pot locations. But he sees the potential for 500 or more Burger 21 stores.

The son of a New York book publisher, Johnston talked recently with the St. Petersburg Times about how his first Burger 21 in Westchase is faring in the competitive burger market, how his company weathered the last three years, and how a soccer injury led him to Melting Pot in the first place. Here's a condensed version of what he said.

Five Guys, Smashburger, Tampa's Square One and steak house chains up to Capital Grille, Fleming's and the Palm are pushing gourmet burgers. Why join the crowd?

Americans love their burgers, but by collaborating with a (classically trained) chef like Chris Ponte (trained at Johnson & Wales University in the United States and Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and owner of the highly rated Cafe Ponte in Clearwater), we can offer quality ingredients and tastes that differentiate us at a very reasonable price.

Hence brioche burger buns, rosemary and sugar sprinkled on the fries, and 6-ounce burgers that stay juicy without the mess of third- and half-pound monsters?

Yes, and we took our shake bar beyond the three basic milk shakes. We added bananas foster, chocolate cherry bomb and creme brulle.

You once declared there would be no chi-chi, "Cheffie Baby" excess at Burger 21. So what's with the self-serve sauce bar with eight dipping sauces for fried sweet potatoes or french fries?

We had a long debate about that, but it sets us apart. The apple cider and toasted marshmallow sauces for sweet potato fries will take you back to Grandma's house on Thanksgiving Day.

What about those who don't want red meat?

We chose a big variety menu to attract all ages and walks of life: six salads, three veggie burgers, an ahi tuna burger and three types of chicken burgers. Our turkey burgers sell like crazy. This week's special is turkey decadence (topped with brie, cran-apple chutney and honey mustard).

A year ago you were poised to launch another Chef Ponte joint venture called Peel, which was to be a thin-crust Neapolitan pizza, panini and salads place. Instead you went with the smaller, 95-seat Burger 21. What happened?

The location for the first Peel fell through. Plus the average check at Peel was higher and the kitchen more complex. So in this economy, we went with Burger 21 where the entrees are $5.50 to $10, the average check is $12 and the food is at your table in five to seven minutes. We may do a Peel this year. But we're looking at more Burger 21 sites in Tampa. We think a Burger 21 can do $1 million to $2 million a year. We don't know if it will yet, but so far it's exceeding our expectations.

Never-frozen beef and ground on-site poultry. And such a long menu — 21 burgers alone. Aren't you violating the conventional chain restaurant kitchen complexity rule of keeping a menu under 15 entrees?

We're pushing the envelope, but it's manageable.

After doubling your store count since 2004, the recession left your systemwide revenue flat at about $300 million for a second year in 2010. Melting Pot is $272 million of that total, and your sales in Florida sales remain about 18 percent below 2007. Any signs of economic recovery?

After declining three years, this is the first year in three we have more Melting Pot stores post sales growth than declines. Florida is stabilizing. But it's getting better very slowly.

We turned to value pricing and enhance profit through efficiencies. For instance, at GrillSmith, we added flatbreads to the free breadstick basket. They're more flavorful and cost less to make.

You started as a Melting Pot waiter in Maitland at 21 while earning a business degree from the University of Central Florida. Was restaurant owner in the plan?

I didn't know what I wanted to do. I washed dishes and bused tables since I was 15. After a soccer injury ended my collegiate playing days, a girlfriend worked at the first Melting Pot. So I went there, loved it and managed one day a week. The owners helped us set up a franchised store in Tallahassee, and we later bought the company. My brother, Bob — he's my polar opposite, so we complement each other — came in as chief operating officer. I learned from the school of hard knocks.

What's the attraction of Melting Pot fondue?

It's fun, interactive and conducive to conversation. The recession slowed our growth. We lost a couple of franchises. We're in 36 states, so we have U.S. growth potential left. We're focusing now on international markets. We just opened the first of four stores in Canada and the first of seven in Mexico City.

Melting Pot company goes into the burger business 12/26/10 [Last modified: Monday, December 27, 2010 7:21am]
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